Daniel Waters exploded onto the film scene with his brilliant, perceptive, wickedly funny screenplay for HEATHERS (1988). His subversive, outrageous, satirical sense of fun brought extraordinary qualities to films like BATMAN RETURNS (1992), THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (1990), DEMOLITION MAN (1993), VAMPIRE ACADEMY (2014, directed by his brother Mark Waters) and the infamous HUDSON HAWK (1991). Dan also wrote and directed the unfairly underseen comedies HAPPY CAMPERS (2001) and SEX AND DEATH 101 (2007). spoke to Dan about HUDSON HAWK, the Bruce Willis action comedy vehicle that baffled and disappointed audiences in 1991, but 25 years later is still talked about and now in much more appreciative terms. It's a wild, silly, subversive treat, imbued with a love of cinema, a great sense of imagination and an infectiously playful tone. I spoke to Dan about the creation, the filming and the legacy of the movie. 

I had taken probably the biggest fall of any screenwriter - I had gone from HEATHERS to THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE. I call it 'failing upwards'. It was originally a good script, and everybody responded to it. It was my first time working with Joel Silver. I have my esoteric, ambitious quality but I am also someone that loves every kind of movie. Nobody sees more movies than I do. Joel is the same way. You can see in his films, even more so than producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, that he has a tangy love of movies. I was watching LETHAL WEAPON with my family at Christmas when Joel called me about FORD FAIRLANE. It probably wasn't the greatest career move I could have made coming off HEATHERS, but I just wanted to work with him.

We had a great time. Joel really loved HEATHERS and out of his love of the film, he also attached Michael Lehmann to his project HUDSON HAWK. Michael had me read the script just as a friend and I just didn't get it. It was kind of an action script that was just all over the place. Boy, did I change it! It just didn't click with me. FORD FAIRLANE was coming out and Andrew Dice Clay was taking attention away from the filming of the movie and how the film was perceived. I figured 'I need to make sure I have another movie before this one comes out. '' I went scrambling around looking for a project, and Michael and Joel started ganging up on me to do HUDSON HAWK. When you genuinely don't want to do something, and it's more than playing hard to get, people throw so much money at you, it's crazy. I was like ''You really don't understand. I don't want to do this. '' Joel would say ''OK, we'll double it. '' I took a look at the material again and Joel said I could have a free rein. Bruce Willis said he wasn't interested in doing a traditional action movie. He felt his character from Moonlighting had never been in a movie. He wanted to bring some humor into the proceedings. I started to see this as a chance to do my kind of action movie and take it way out there. 

There's a weird speech in the middle of the movie which is almost verbatim the plot that Bruce Willis told me. It's really just who Hudson Hawk is. He's a cat burglar and he's just out of jail, and he wants to stay clean, but different forces come together to make him rob things. There was the cop, the Italian Mafia guys. I kind of took that and went crazy with it. I brought in the crazy butler and the rich couple.There was talk of cutting down the story to make it more meat and potatoes, but every time I talked about taking out characters I was told ''No, no. You need that character so we can get to this point in the story. '' I don't think there was a treatment by Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft. If there was, I never read it. I think they just had a basic idea. 

I know Steve De Souza, and even he wouldn't say it was his best script. He has some hilarious stories about the industry. The original DIE HARD is almost a perfect movie but he said that so much of that was done on the fly that you wouldn't believe. I was so shocked when he told me that. I said ''OK, I guess this is the way things are run at Silver Pictures. ''

Steve's script had the same plot, and the same opening. It just wasn't as loony or expensive. A guy gets out of jail and is forced by bad guys into doing robberies against his will. But there certainly wasn't a Richard E. Grant or a Sandra Bernhard. You didn't have Rocky and Bullwinkle's William Conrad narrating it. I remember there was a ranch in Texas at one point. It was a learning lesson, working on a big movie like HUDSON HAWK, and being allowed to let my imagination run riot. No other movie I have been on, be it BATMAN RETURNS or a lower budget movie like HEATHERS, has there ever been enough money. 

I could tell Bruce was invested in the character. I liked taking a more down to earth guy and putting him in a crazy environment. Bruce would have all these little ideas and I would have to work them in. First, Bruce wanted to have a pet monkey who he finally gets to see again after he gets out of prison. We realised it was going to be too time intensive having to deal with a monkey. So I thought ''What if the monkey was killed while he was in prison, and it gives him something else to be angry about?'' We had someone putting out a hit on the monkey, who was named Little Eddie. There was a newspaper headline of the Mafia shooting the monkey. The movie at one point was even more nuts than it is now, if you can believe that. So Hudson thinks its the Mafia that killed him, and if you watch the movie, in one scene James Coburn admits he killed Little Eddie. When Coburn dies in the movie, he falls on top of the limousine as it goes over the cliff. If you look at his face, there's a picture of a monkey on his forehead. That's because in the fight scene that lead to it, Bruce Willis had slapped a picture of Little Eddie on his forehead and said ''Say hello to Little Eddie, motherfucker'' and then thrown him off the cliff. We filmed all these little things that made up this relentlessly running story about Little Eddie being killed. Originally, Bruce is excited to meet Little Eddie but after Danny Aiello picks him up from prison, Danny has to break the news to him - ''By the way, Little Eddie is dead. '' 

Everybody I know who has worked with him has horror stories. I sometimes wonder if after the failure of the movie he just clammed up and became unpleasant. He was a happy-go-lucky guy when I was working with him. I felt he put Michael Lehmann through a lot and they didn't click. Like many actors, Bruce wants to be a director too and that is tough on the director of the film. I think Bruce liked riffing with me.

Bruce had a sense of adventure. He liked trying different things. If you look at the movie there's a lot of funny stuff he does, and physical comedy stuff like falling in the Styrofoam and waking up and looking at the Coloseum all in one shot. Bruce and his buddy Carmine Zozzora, who plays one of the Mafia guys, talked to me about another project. It was about a kooky weatherman who goes crazy and runs around New York. It was a dream project of theirs and they said ''Oh, you gotta write it!'' after HUDSON HAWK, Bruce never brought up that project again with anyone. 

On the page my script was certainly not like anything you had ever read. I think people looked at that in a good way as we went into pre-production. I started to know we were in trouble when in dailies Joel and Bruce would say ''You know what this is? This is a Pink Panther movie. '' The next day they'd say ''You know what this is? This is an American James Bond movie. '' Another day they'd say ''You know what this is? This is a Flint movie. Let's get James Coburn in the movie. '' Then it would be ''You know what this is? This is NORTH BY NORTHWEST with David Addison from Moonlighting. '' I even remember someone saying ''You know what, this is CASINO ROYALE (the 1967 version). '' I thought ''Mmmm, I remember that being fun. '' I had someone get it for me in Rome and I watched it and realised ''Oh, my God. It IS CASINO ROYALE, but not in a good way. '' Eventually I realised that if every day at dailies they were saying it was something different, by the time we got to the editing room, we were going to be in trouble.

Nobody knew quite what movie they were making. Bruce would say ''Is this funny? Is this working? Is this interesting? Is this good?'' Depending on which actor was working, it would be a different movie. If it was Bruce and Danny Aiello, that was one movie. Bruce being charming with Andie MacDowell was one movie. And then you go on set with Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard and everybody is way out there. Bruce was as confused as everybody else. I think we all would have loved to have had the time to make the script more real. The train left the station before we really answered the big issues. I was on set doing little changes, but the problem wasn't the little things. 

This is definitely parameter-less writing in a parameter-less movie. It's what people like about the movie but it's also what people loathe about the movie too. I have to wear the horns of this movie because I wrote it. It worked on the page, so people just said ''We're just going to go with it.'' Joel Silver and I are not big structure guys. I always think movies today are too structured. It's like they're working from a graph that swells up here and swells up there. Joel and I are of the belief that the climax of the movie should be pushed to the next scene, and then you should keep going beyond that. You have to create the idea that you have no idea what the movie is going to be a half hour from now. Nowadays in movies you know what is going to happen and where the peaks and valleys are. We brought out the best and the worst in each other. To hear people talk, we mostly brought out the most undisciplined side of each other. There was no hall monitor on the set, which I think we needed.

They fed off each other onscreen. We knew what we were getting when we cast them. Between takes, they would get mean, and bring their characters a little bit too much to life. They would have PA's running around getting stuff for them. They were just a little bit too over the line villainous for me! They were in their own little world.

There's a scene in the movie where Sandra Bernhard gets angry and is bossing around not only Richard E Grant but also Bruce Willis, and Bruce says ''Well I guess I know who wears the penis in this family. '' We were shooting the scene and we got to the line and Bruce says ''Who's got the dick?'' I'll never forget Michael Lehmann, like a doctor doing surgery saying to Bruce ''Well, OK Bruce, that's interesting, but the way it is in the script is kind of cool too. '' But take after take, Bruce kept saying ''Who's got the dick?'' They finally did one take the way it was written, just for fun, and it's in the movie. I was like ''Oh, boy. This is the dark side of comic riffing. '' 

The same night that we first met Richard E. Grant in a bar in London, we had met with the actor Steven Berkoff. They wanted to offer him the role of the butler. I said ''He's the villain in BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984). He's too big for the part. He's not going to want to do it. '' We met him and he was so insulted that he was offered the part. He spent the entire evening just making fun of us and being evil.

Eventually everybody realised that the script was not based on any kind of reality of how to make a movie. Everything was so big and over the top. There came a point where the budget had to kick in.

Towards the end of shooting, we were supposed to shoot my my favourite scene in the script. I had a spinning safe that was in the Kremlin and had been created by Da Vinci. It spun to a different side every half hour. Coming up on one side you had the CIA people with all their hi-tech equipment, and on the other side where it spun again, you had Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello with their very low-tech tools. It was to be a race to see who could crack the safe first. I saw the designs by Jackson De Govia, who did DIE HARD (1988), and they were great. It was everybody's big scene – the production designer, the director's, and so on. This was where we were going to stop getting goofy and get great. We were going to shoot the scene in Budapest. Then Joel Silver came in and said ''OK. We're crazy over budget. You've got to rewrite the spinning safe scene so hat that we can shoot all of it in one day on the set of Andie MacDowell's apartment in Rome. '' So, in the movie everybody is in Andie MacDowell's apartment, and James Coburn comes in and says ''Hey, we robbed the Louvre last night. '' They did the big robbery offscreen! That was the most outstanding and glaring example of us having to downscale as the budget got too high, and it saved us two weeks of shooting and millions of dollars. 

I was on set in Rome for a bit, and before that, New York. We closed down the Brooklyn Bridge for a week at night. That was fun, walking across Brooklyn Bridge in my socks. I have all these movies that ruin great cities fo me. I can't go back to Rome after HUDSON HAWK. I had a great time in London for VAMPIRE ACADEMY but Harvey Weinstein raped me and my brother so hard that now I get traumatic sweats whenever I think about the city. 

I did HUDSON HAWK out of panic and the fear of FORD FAIRLANE failing, and when I started to get sweaty on this one, I got a call from Tim Burton while I was still in Rome. He wanted me to do the sequel to BATMAN. So I wasn't there for the second half of shooting. When I ran into the still photographer, Stephen Vaughan, he reached out and touched me and said ''Wow, I thought that rats that jumped off ships were still wet. '' Things got crazier after I left. If I ever write a book about HUDSON HAWK, the title should be what Bruce says to Danny Aiello when Danny turns up alive, all burned up, talking about how an airbag saved his life – ''That's probably what happened. '' It somehow that encapsulates the whole movie. Apparently Danny had a quasi-nervous breakdown that day and it was a horrible shoot day.

I hadn't realised that I had acted as a buffer on set in many ways. The most sterling example is that David Caruso, who plays a mute in the movie, wouldn't talk to anybody except me. He wouldn't talk to Joel, Michael, Bruce or any of the cast members. He would communicate with cards, like his character Kit-Kat did. He would give me notes because he thought I was behind the scenes enough. When I left and he realised they would be shooting a month over schedule, he just started talking to everybody. 

It was a different kind of project and I could feel his pain. I had worked with Joel before so I definitely helped him understand Joel. For example, if Joel screams at you, you can't treat it like if a normal person screams at you. Thats just his mode. I gave Michael the lay of the land on working with him. I think I'm more comfortable in the bombastic Joel Silver world. I ended up doing another film with Joel, DEMOLITION MAN. I think Michael learned his lesson on HUDSON HAWK that it just wasn't his kind of movie. Personally we had a great time together working on a project this big and we just picked up where we had left off on HEATHERS. It was exciting. I do feel that I let him down most of all when I went off to do BATMAN RETURNS. 

The first test screening was one of the great nightmare nights of my life. Bruce insisted that we try out all the jokes, so the movie was about 2 hours and 40 minutes long. The best part was that there was a woman in a motorised wheelchair who tried to leave but her wheelchair got caught on a piece of the carpet and kept making this huge noise. I remember Joel saying ''Somebody get that woman out of here!'' Mike Medavoy had just taken over Tri-Star, and inherited the movie. As he wrote in his book, he was sitting there thinking ''What the hell is this?'' 

Up until the movie's release I thought there were going to be some people who would get the movie, and some people that wouldn't. I didn't think the response was going to be as angry as it was. There was something unprecedented about it. I remember watching Siskel and Ebert on TV. They always liked some movies and didn't like others. They started their show by saying ''We are going to review THELMA AND LOUISE (1991), we are going to review BACKDRAFT (1991), and then what we are going to talk about what happened with HUDSON HAWK. '' James Lipton, on The Actor's Studio, sucks up to every actor about every movie. He brought Martin Lawrence on the show and talked about BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE 2 (2006) as if it was a great film. Then he had Bruce Willis on the show and he said to him ''So... HUDSON HAWK. What would you like to say about it?'' I was thinking ''Wait a minute, James Lipton can't even take the movie?'' 

I remember kneeling in my backyard praying that the reviews wouldn't be too bad. I picked up the New York Times and the opening paragraph of Janet Maslin's review went 'This is one of the special ones. This is one of the ones we will be talking about for a very long time. '' I thought ''OK, this sounds promising. '' But the review didn't go well after that. I think the scenes where Bruce and Danny do robberies timed to certain songs work perfectly well, and the people who love the movie love those scenes, but I recall that Owen Gleiberman wrote ''And then they just start singing. For no reason. It's appalling. ''There was a reason! Even if it was a silly one.

We got two good reviews. One from Richard Schickel in Time magazine, and one from Hal Hinson in the Washington Times. I didn't shy away from saying that whatever didn't work about the movie was my fault. I made sure it wasn't going to mediocre. You can say many things about the movie but it isn't boring and it's not a typical action movie. People in countries outside the States, like Germany, Japan and especially Denmark. seem to love the movie. I joke that they must have good subtitles or dubbing. They have no problem with the tonal shifts. Maybe it's an American thing. The premiere screening was memorable. You cannot fake laughter. Nobody knew what the movie was. I saw it in a repertory theater recently and it played well. Nowadays the synapses of people's movie watching is much better. They can handle people going off on these tangents. It works so much better now. The film certainly wasn't great for my career but I always knew it was misunderstood. For all the hate I got for it , I never thought it was that bad of a movie. The people that talk about the movie nowadays don't talk of it as bad anymore. 

Bruce Willis used to be funny. I feel like I killed the humour in him with this movie. He's pretty good in it and you get to see his comic chops. But after the film, if you look at his movie career, he did the most serious and solemn films, with a few exceptions. Something inside of him died after HUDSON HAWK. I'll say this about the film. If I hadn't been involved it would have just been another STRIKING DISTANCE (1993) or MERCURY RISING (1998) kind of failed action movie that we never really heard about again. It took me to make it ''one of the worst films ever made''. The tonal shifts were baked into the cake. Certainly I am a lot to blame for the film but I can't say the alchemy of it was well balanced. What I have always said about my participation in action films in general is that I like to cut the head off of a rhinoceros and put a giraffe's head on it. For some people, a rhinoceros with a giraffe's head on it is interesting and something to look at. ''Wow, you don't see that every day!'' Other people will say ''That is wrong! That is an abomination against nature! Kill it now! Get it out of my sight!'' 

I spoke to Dan by telephone and would like to thank him for his time. 


Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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