Operation Clambake

Battlefield: Earth "MEAN" Magazine dishes
MEAN magazine, Vol 1, Number 5, Sep-Dec 1999.


Former Spy contributor Mark Ebner explains why the gluttonous, greedy John Travolta--soon to star as a 10-foot-tall alien in a film adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard's lousy sci-fi epic Battlefield Earth--is an especially gross example of Hollywood's current downward spiral.

When Quentin Tarantino resurrected John Travolta in his pop pastiche, Pulp Fiction he had no idea what a gluttonous monster he was re-releasing. Although Travolta subsequently scored in a hat-trick of hit films playing had guys (Broken Arrow, Get Shorty, and Face/Off), there are still the mind-numbing Phenomenon and the miserable Michael to account for. Primary Colors and A Civil Action did not meet box office expectations, and no doubt Travolta, distributors and the public would like to forget the dreary race-based drama White Man's Burden. Those so-so showings--plus Travolta's insulting turn as a retard in Mad City, and his storming off the set of Roman Polanski's The Double (in effect, shutting it down) all should have put the porcine actor out to pasture.

More recently Two-Ton Travolta bailed on his commitment to star in The Shipping News, and the much-hyped, misogynistic melodrama The General's Daughter bellyflopped--its first week box office barely enough to cover the star's salary and that of his retainers and go-fers. Yet Travolta still commands $21 million a picture. Too bad his extreme largesse has a way of killing his own best plans.

Standing Room Only, the biopic story of lounge singer Jimmy Roselli, was to begin shooting in April '99 with Travolta starring as the Sinatra contemporary who refused to be co-opted by the mob. The staršs real-life wife, Kelly Preston, was also on board as Rosellišs spouse Donna. Following up his ill-received Psycho remake, the ever-eclectic Gus Van Sant was to direct the risky project for which Disney had cautiously ponied up only $23 million--again, an amount barely covering the star's salary. Travolta's longtime handler/producer Jonathan Krane had allegedly raised an additional $25 million, bringing the budget to a nearly-workable $48 million.

Still, as the start date loomed, the SRO production team was caught short; they needed at least $64 million to produce this show on a 50-day shooting schedule. According to sources, they went back to Krane and Travolta, hat in hand, hoping that the actor would defer maybe $8-10 million of his salary towards getting his pet project rolling. They apparently figured that since Travolta was dying to sing and dance in a movie again (he had rehearsed with composer Marvin Hamlisch for nine, hours nightly), he'd pitch in some coin.

Travolta wouldn't budge. Not a dime more than his contracted $1 million-deferred was going into this production. Yet for one day of test shooting, the star acted as if he'd actually get to scene-one/take one, and he ate like there was no tomorrow.

Travolta began the test-shoot work day with a pick-up at his Brentwood, CA estate, by his $3600- week driver in an $1100-a-week rental on the $70,000 black Lexus star car. Once he arrived on set, before he talked to anyone, before he rehearsed or even blocked the shots, Travolta had to eat breakfast. Alone.

Imagine Howard Hughes crossed with the equally eccentric L. Ron Hubbard and you've got Travolta in his luxury trailer at a table set with silver, scarfing eggs and caviar prepared by his personal $32/hour craft services guy, Peter Evangelitos. While Travolta brunched, the director and crew waited for him to finish as the clock on the star's contracted maximum ten-hour work day ticked painfully.

After breakfast, an engorged Travolta waddled to the set, but he still had several hours of prosthetic "aging" makeup to sit through. So, Travolta spent the first two to three hours of his ten-hour shift sprawled in a makeup chair getting ready while the crew waited again. And waited, until... Lunch time! This was on a four-hour test shoot where no lunch was planned for the crew. But that didn't bother the lipidinous star. Travolta's personal chef had $49 worth of filet mignon delivered to be ground into hamburgers. The first burger served was not rare enough. On the second, some thing was wrong with the mayonnaise. Luckily, the third burger met Travolta's exacting culinary standards. Almost fifty dollars worth of meat was thrown away because--well, he's John Travolta.

"The guy [Travolta] just eats and eats, he's like one of those geese who get force-fed foie gras. He eats in almost a panic, shoveling food into his mouth," remarks one SRO crew member. "He is so corpulent and bloated, his already huge head is watching his gut catch up." The same source says that for his on-camera costuming, Travolta insisted on wearing the Donna Karan tuxedo he wore at the Academy Awards because "it covered up his massive girth."

One way to lose a day of shooting is to offend Travolta's sense of smell. A set must not only be fully sanitized for this compulsive movie star, no outside odors can interfere. To avoid having the star walk off the set at a club where they were shooting, a team of production assistants was sent scrambling to mask the scent of a nearby kitchen. And as a bonus expense--whether his shit stinks or not--Travolta demands that his trailer be pumped nightly, an unheard of request even amongst the most pampered celebrities.

In addition to his private chef and personal driver, Travolta had at least a dozen more people in his on-set entourage during the test shoot. Few know what they did besides collect production pay checks. "He, doesn't pay them a dime," said a production source. "The studio pays them. Their contracts are boiler plate and they are paid way shove union scale." His staff also has to sign a non-disclosure agreement that is "as thick as a phone book."

Travolta apparently felt that the right to have him sing and dance in a movie was an exclusive, premium opportunity that no one has had since Grease (Tarantino only got the fancy footwork in Pulp Fiction). For Standing Room Only, Travolta reportedly believed that he should not have had to take a deferred payment in exchange for a once in-a-lifetime chance for any studio or producer. Even if this was a project close to his heart.

No financial entities really wanted to gamble heavily on the paunchy song-and-dance man after the less-than phenomenal box office returns from his last two films. Disney had agreed to only $23 million for the right to distribute the picture in North America. And before the movie was shut down, the $25 million that a company called Interlight Pictures promised for foreign sales had quickly slimmed down to $20 million.

The only money Krane had definitely secured was a paltry $1 million advance, from QVC (that's right, the shopping network) for the soundtrack album. But of course JT's manager, Krane, could not admit that he was losing control of any hard and fast financing. Instead, he hung Gus Van Sant and producer Danny Wolf out to dry--blaming them for imaginary budget overruns and spiraling costs.

Krane apparently couldn't risk having his star client mad at him, so he took the traditional finger-licking, ass-kissing chicken's route out smoke-screening the truth with a rain of blame. And spin. On the cover of the April 12 edition of Variety, Krane claimed that "the numerous musical numbers and elaborate staging had lengthened the pre-production and production [schedules]." The bottom line: Krane couldn't raise the money. [Jonathan Krane did not respond to MEAN's interview request, and Travolta passed on the same through his publicist].

By mid-April, rumors floated that a financier named George Litto had offered Jonathan Krane substantial funding for Standing Room Only. According to a source close to the production, Litto "guaranteed the cash in the bank through his line of credit with Chase Manhattan Bank." Krane's apparent concern was that Disney had expressed relief when the show shut down, and wasn't certain that the Mouse House would stand behind the original $23 million offer; thus there would be no American distribution.

Adding further conflict is Travolta's other pet project, which he's been developing for six years: Battlefield: Earth, based on the doorstop novel by deceased spiritual flight attendant L Ron Hubbard. As MEAN goes to press, Battlefield has pushed their start date back to August 5. Consequently, if Standing Room Only really did see funding, BE's earliest completion date would be August 10, threatening the intended Memorial Day 2000 release of the film Travolta has called 'the passion of his professional lifeš."

Krane's latest idea is to push for Standing Room Only to begin shooting in October. Theoretically, Travolta could then hibernate and burn off fat all summer, while getting his skills up or the musical numbers. But instead, the former Sweat Hog is apparently suiting up on stilts to play the 10-foot ruthless alien "Terl" opposite Saving Private Ryan sniper Barry Pepper in Ontario and Quebec. Those stilts and the film that goes with them could permanently hobble tubby Travolta's career.

To the press jowly John has commented, "Because Battlefield: Earth is one of the biggest-selling science fiction novels of all time we could be next summer's Star Wars." Of course, not all big-selling science fiction novels translate well to screen (Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers comes to mind), and reviews of Hubbard's lengthy sci-fi tome have been far from kind. The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction gave Hubbard's 1000-plus page opus a ranking of "zero stars", while The Economist called the it "an unsubtle saga, atrociously written, windy and out of control...The plot clanks along like a giant, lumbering engine."

Travolta has managed to secure the services of director Roger Christian, who, after a string of unnoticed flicks in the mid-'90s, shot the second unit (action) footage for Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. The screenwriter on BE is an unknown quantity; Corey Mandel has no produced credits.

Travolta has always been more appealing as a bad guy--witness Carrie, Face/Off and Broken Arrow--than as a protagonist. He exudes menace and charm in bulk, fine qualities for a villain, but the adipose actor has a few hurdles in BE that not even the four-foot stilts can help him cross. As Terl, the evil leader of the aliens, the actor's familiar rubbery features will be disguised. Enthused Travolta about his Mardi Gras-style drag ensemble, "It will be my face, but I'll be wearing an elaborate head-dress. I'll have talons for hands and amber eyes." And if pre-production reports are to be believed, a giant furry egg head.

The make up is the least of the problem. Battlefield: Earth is sub-standard sci-fi fare: evil aliens, good humans. In Hubbard's turgid space opera, the humans must save earth from the nefarious halitosis-ridden "Psychlos." In a clear sci-fi elaboration of his personal ideology, Hubbard semantically linked the bad guys with his personal bugabears, psychiatrists, who he felt were out to enslave and destroy mankind. The removal of psychiatrists from planet Earth is a basic tenet of Scientology, the multi-level marketing religion Hubbard founded some thirty years before Battlefield: Earth was originally published.

Barry Pepper, who debuted strong as the Bible-quoting sniper in Saving Private Ryan, has been cast as "Jonnie Goodboy Tyler," the human who is captured by Travolta/Terl and goes on to save humanity through his bravery and brains. Forest Whitaker, who appeared in Phenomenon, is also on board the wacky spaceship. In other words, cliche doesn't even begin to describe the ennui that will hit the screens next year.

And theaters will not be the only outlet for Travolta's megalomaniacal magnum opus. If things go as planned, toy stores will be filled with action figures from BE. Author Services (the Scientology owned and operated literary agency whose only client is the late L. Ron) is reportedly in for a piece of the merchandising, since they hold all the copyrights on Battlefield: Earth and the sequels and prequels that make up Hubbard's Mission: Earth series--a book package that one review referred to as "a door stop." Battlefield: Earth was originally published by St. Martin's, but is now owned by Bridge Publications, whose catalog includes (surprise) all the works of the late L. Ron Hubbard.

Reports from Cannes had BE's director Roger Christian arriving with set drawings, animations and production notes, hoping to raise the lacking $40 million needed to save Earth from the murderous Psychlos. Will Travolta kick down some of his bulky paycheck to cover costs? Don't bet on it, because his track record indicates that even if he wants a picture made, he wants the fatted $21 million purse even more. Travolta's behavior--the overpaid entourage on 24-hour call, the compulsive-face stuffing--are the Emperor's haute couture disguising slobbering greed and pathological insecurity, overshadowing any artistic integrity. While his Scientological counterpart Tom Cruise--who clearly travels the same cosseted universe--only does maybe one movie every two years and carefully chooses the directors he'll work with, Travolta seems eager to sign on to any project that will lay out the cash for him and his pampering employees. One insider speculated, "He's so afraid that the bottom's going to drop out, like it did after Saturday Night Fever, that he's going to make every penny he can."

Travolta is a gross example of what's causing Hollywood's current downward spiral. He has no compunction about damaging our already fragile film economy by taking the Battlefield: Earth production to Canada. Now, of course his fifteen-per-center, Jonathan Krane, can argue that runaway production is a sound business decision, but how can he defend the obscenely obese fees paid to his client and his personal staff? When stars reap such ridiculous numbers, the studios cut below-the-line expenses. And as studios fiercely slash those below-the-line costs, they are paying less to crews while working them harder. And union guys who used to make tidy six-figure incomes are putting their homes on the market or figuring out other ways to tighten their belts.

And don't think the crew, from honeywagon driver to the grips and gaffers, don't know that they're being worked like serfs. "The standard used to he one third of the budget above the line, two thirds below," says a veteran producer. "But that's changed now, and when one actor gets such a giant hunk of dough, it makes the crew dissatisfied and unhappy. It gets a little Marie Antoinette-ish."

Let them eat cake crumbs. Travolta and company will gobble the whole bakery, courtesy of his private pastry chef. Hold the mayo.

The screen adaptation of Hubbard's Battlefield: Earth was penned by unknown scribe Corey Mandel: the film is to be directed by action director Roger Christian. Anticipating a budget that could well top $120 million MEAN thought it would be cool to play development executive for a day.

We took Mandel's screenplay and changed only the title page to read "Dark Forces by Desmond Finch." Then we dropped it into Hollywood's time honored development pipeline called ŗcoverage,˛ in which the screenplay was subjected to expert criticism by professional Hollywood script readers. Script Reader #1 is a male reader at uber agent Mike Ovitz's management/production concern, Artists Management Group (AMG); Script Reader #2 is a woman who reads for a busy television/feature film production company.

Here's how the professionals assessed Battlefield: Earth.

From Script Reader #1:
"A thoroughly silly plotline is made all the more ludicrous by its hamfisted dialogue and ridiculously shallow characterization. Functioning only as the broadest of cartoonish stories, the script reads like a 1950šs Earth versus the Martians film with a bit of Conan-esque heavy breathing mixed in. The premise is fairly standard genre stuff: sort of a poor man's Independence Day. The storyline, however, is slow-moving, predictable and obvious. The characters are overdrawn types who behave along no consistent unified tone: some act like mad scientists while others seem sword-wielding Xena rejects. The dialogue is laughable, at best, dwelling heavily on the rather obvious irony of the premise.

"The storyline functions, barely, but its slow pace never entertains or arouses much excitement as it pauses frequently to linger on its own profundity. The opening scenes set a bizarrely, Conan-like tone as the silent sword-wielding young hero defies the gods and his elders by leaving the cave. This tone is quickly made ridiculous as hero Jonnie is revealed not to be in some medieval underworld, but wandering around the San Fernando Valley. Once he is abducted by the aliens, the tone shifts again into its kitschy sci-fi talk as the aliens marvel at these stupid little humans who are too dumb to speak and the ugliness of Earth's blue Skies..., The aliens finally manage to figure out that humans are not completely brain dead, and the humans learn not to live in fear of superstitious myths of the gods, but instead to fight for freedom, The quasi-anti-spiritual message is a laughable attempt at high seriousness in the context of this schlocky story. The thrills and the fights are fairly standard action sequences,...[and] the conclusion is a thoroughly confused climax as Jonnie hatches an incomprehensibly complicated plot to defeat the aliens."
Recommendation: PASS

From Script Reader #2:
"Planet of the Apes meets Total Recall with a touch of Armageddon and Independence Day thrown in for kicks...a completely predictable story that just isnšt written well enough to make up for its lack of originality. The basic story has been done before with a more interesting setting, stronger characters and better dialogue. The [supporting] characters are all straight out of Central Casting... Such miserably uninspired characters are well-suited to this exceedingly uninteresting story. The dialogue is dull, historical allusions painful, and the few laughs Finch tries to work into the script fall horrifyingly flat. If that weren't bad enough, Finch uses the "everything AND the kitchen sink" approach to plotting a screen-play. Think of your least favorite cliche, and I guarantee you'll find it in Dark Forces.

"Sadly, in the age of disturbingly derivative movies, a film with plot points from nearly every science fiction flick ever made could reign as king.... But as a screenplay, the patchwork quilt Mr. Finch is trying to pass off as a movie is about as entertaining as watching a fly breathe."
Recommendation: PASS