The Return of The Rocketeerby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I love The Rocketeer. I love the comic book series created and drawn by the amazing Dave Stevens that began in 1982. I love the Disney movie version that was released in 1991. Decades after the character was created and took to the skies for the first time, I still love The Rocketeer.
For those not familiar with the comic book series or the Disney film, it is a story that takes place in 1938 Los Angeles. A young stunt pilot named Cliff Secord and his friend and mechanic, Peevy, discover a top-secret untested rocket pack. Through a series of adventures, Cliff has to use the device as the Rocketeer to foil Nazis and to rescue his girlfriend. The comic and the film capture the buoyant pulp-ish feel of classic movie serials from the Thirties and Forties.
(For Disney theme park fans, you can find the blueprints for the rocket pack, the pack itself and an actual stunt helmet from the movie at Peevy’s Polar Pipeline in the Echo Park section of Disney Hollywood Studios in Florida. Another rocket pack is also on display at the end of the “One Man’s Dream” attraction.)
I only met Dave Stevens in person once even though I was an avid fan and remain so today. It was at the San Diego Comic Con in July 1990, and he was at a table signing autographs for his fans. Through the kindness of friends, I had a copy of the latest revision of The Rocketeer movie script that was just going into production that fall and took it up to Stevens to autograph.
At the time, I was known in the Los Angeles area community as an animation and comic book historian, having already written countless articles for a variety of fanzines and magazines on those topics. As I tentatively handed Stevens the script, a person standing next to him pointed out that I was Jim Korkis, the writer.
He immediately smiled and said, “I love your stuff!” To my delight and amazement (and to the jaw dropping jealousy of those waiting in line), he not only signed a touching personal inscription on the script but did a quick sketch headshot of the Rocketeer after it had been made painfully clear to all of us repeatedly that he was not going to do any sketching at his table.
“This version is pretty close to what we will actually be filming,” said Stevens with a smile as he casually flipped through the pages and then handed me back my treasure.
I was speechless and grateful and soared higher than Cliff Secord ever did and to this day, I try to remember that graciousness and generosity when somebody wants my autograph on something other than a credit card slip.
Many of us still mourn the loss of Dave Stevens who died of leukemia on March 11, 2008. I also mourn the fact that the Disney Company never recorded a commentary track from Stevens for an extra on a DVD release of The Rocketeer or utilized any of the items in his personal collection about the making of the film.
Stevens was there day and night from pre-production to post production on the film. Principal photography was from September 19, 1990, to January 22, 1991, because weather and technical problems caused the film to go roughly 50 days over its planned shooting schedule.
“Though it took up two years of my life, and all my waking hours, for me it still stands as the culmination of everything I'd worked toward at that point in my career,” Stevens remarked in an interview. “Like all films, it has its flaws and weak spots, but overall it holds up surprisingly well for me.”
In addition, Stevens had tons of behind-the-scenes photos and videos of the making of the production. He gave full access to his own personal reference library to the production designers for the film so they could utilize everything Stevens had gathered through the years from blueprints for hangars and bleachers to vintage photos of the real Bulldog Cafe to contacts to get authentic working aircraft from that time period.
Stevens, who looked remarkably like the hero Cliff Secord, had a small cameo appearance in the final movie. He is the German test pilot in the black and white film segment who is killed when the Nazis' version of a rocketpack explodes during its attempted take-off. Stevens had done some acting in high school, enough to realize he was much more comfortable behind the scenes doing the stagecraft and make-up, but couldn’t pass up an opportunity to be in a short scene meeting Adolf Hitler in a film based on his own creation.
Stevens would often chat with friends about scenes that were deleted from the film, including little character bits and others that were never filmed—like a much more elaborate action scene planned in the Seven Seas Club for financial reasons.
Recreating 1938 Los Angeles, as well as some of the special effects (the final Zeppelin explosion scene cost $400,000 alone and had to be done twice to get it right), was expensive. In his famous budget-cutting memo, Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg praised The Rocketeer as an example of the Disney Studio's new cost-consciousness.
Director Joe Johnston stated at the time, “We agreed on $25 million, but once [Disney] started seeing footage, they realized this was a bigger movie than they were anticipating, and they approved overages. The budget kept climbing, but it never got completely out of control.” (The final cost was $40 million. Unfortunately, the overall domestic box office for the initial release of The Rocketeer was just a little over $40 million so the studio considered the film a failure.)
Unfortunately, as Stevens was warned by others, the process of making a film with the Disney Company is not always a happy, magical experience.
In fact, the Disney Studio was the very last film studio approached to make the movie. In one of his last interviews, Stevens remarked that he realized that “if we go to Disney, we’re just going to have to bite the bullet if we want to get the thing made.” In order to get the film made, Stevens had to sign away certain rights to the property to Disney and, as a result, it was not a lucrative experience for the artist who struggled during the last years of his life.
As early as 1983, there was interest in making a film adaptation of Stevens’ character, with Steve Miner optioning the project.
“Believe it or not, from the first character sketches, I always viewed it in my mind's eye as a film," recalled Stevens in an interview with Jon Cooke. "I never really looked at it as just words and pictures on paper. I saw it and I heard it in my head. So for me, it was always a film.”
At one point, there was even a brief discussion of making the project as a low-budget independent black and white film in the style of the classic movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s.
By 1985, the project was in the hands of writers Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo and made the rounds of many studios including Orion. At one point in the early negotiations with Disney, Universal and Steven Spielberg expressed interest in the project, but it got messy with Spielberg and Amblin involved with Disney in the co-production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit at the same time. So, unfortunately, that option could not be explored further. Stevens had done some storyboard work earlier for Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark.
At first, Eisner and Katzenberg wanted the film updated from its 1938 time period to contemporary times, hoping for a bigger general audience. They were later dissuaded from making the change by arguments that the Indiana Jones films had shown that audiences would eagerly accept the original 1930s for this type of adventure story.
In fact, that argument convinced Disney to consider The Rocketeer as just the beginning of a trilogy of films and took the precaution of signing actors Bill Campbell for two more films and Jennifer Connelly for one more. (Stevens felt both Campbell and Connelly were perfect for their roles.) That’s the reason the rocketpack plans are back in Peevy’s hands at the end of the film so he can build another one for the sequel.
Eisner didn’t like the classic Rocketeer helmet in the comic book series and a series of new prototypes were created that resembled something more modern from NASA. None were found acceptable. In one week as filming was just about to begin, Stevens worked with a sculptor named Kent Melton and produced a classic helmet that looked good from all shooting angles.
As hard as it may be to believe, Disney was not supportive of Stevens being on the set so much or helping out on the artistic direction. Fortunately, director Joe Johnston was a huge Stevens’ supporter, even threatening to walk off the film if Disney changed the look of the helmet.
Nor was Disney supportive of the casting. I love the casting in the film with my only hesitation being Alan Alda as Peevy. While I have come to appreciate that he did a fine job, my vision of Peevy was much different, especially knowing he was based on one of Stevens’ artistic mentors, Doug Wildey. The part was originally offered to Lloyd Bridges, who turned it down.
For me, Campbell does a terrific job as Secord and looks and acts like he stepped right out of the original comic book. However, Disney seriously considered Kevin Costner and Matthew Modine for the role and even auditioned Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Emilio Estevez, among others. Both Paxton and D’Onofrio have claimed they were very close to getting the role. At one point, Disney’s favorite choice for the role was….Johnny Depp! Disney wanted an A-List actor in the part, not a relative unknown.
Here’s a link to a funny story about a non-professional performer who Jeff Katzenberg felt might be a good fit for the role:
For me, Connelly never looked lovelier or better revealed her abilities for humor and action than when she appeared as Jenny. However, the Disney Studio auditioned actresses like Sherilyn Fenn, Kelly Preston, Diane Lane and Elizabeth McGovern. Even Timothy Dalton who was excellent as the villainous Errol Flynn clone, Neville Sinclair, was not a first choice. The Disney Studio first offered the part to Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance. (Paul Sorvino who played Eddie Valentine so well was also not a first choice. The part was written for Joe Pesci, who turned it down.)
Disney frustratingly micro-managed the script and sent it through a seemingly endless series of revisions. Over five years, Disney fired and rehired Bilson and DeMeo three times. Both writers have commented that Disney’s constant flood of notes often had no rhyme or reason where the executives would suddenly decide they really liked something that they had eliminated months or years previously. The project was finally greenlighted after the third major rewrite by Bilson and DeMeo.
I think some of the changes were indeed for the better, like the substitution of Howard Hughes for Doc Savage, the introduction of the “Rondo Hatton” character as a monstrous menace, Neville Sinclair as the Errol Flynn clone, and changing Jenny from a pin up model to a struggling actress. Sometimes rewriting can result in some inspirational additions.
The Rocketeer had its premiere at the El Capitan Theatre on June 19, 1991. This was the first premiere to take place at the El Capitan in more than two years, due to the restoration of the theater that Disney had been doing.
A special coupon ticket book was created for the "World Premiere Blast-Off Party." Part of Hollywood Boulevard in front of the theater was closed down and featured some rides like a Ferris wheel. Besides some advertising, the coupon book had five different colored tickets with artwork by Dave Stevens (three of the Rocketeer and one each of the Bulldog Cafe and the GeeBee plane) that could be used to sample those extras.
Opening that same weekend was Terminator 2: Judgment Day but the Disney film still received generally good reviews from the critics. Its other competition at the box office was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and City Slickers. A confusing marketing campaign failed to target the appropriate audience or to let them know what to expect. After all, Stevens’ comic book series, as good as it was, was still just a small independent cult favorite rather than a mainstream hit. Audiences knew Batman but not the Rocketeer in this era before the first Tim Burton movie had even appeared.
The Disney Company disappointment with the film may not have been with the film itself but the lack of sales of all the related merchandise released. The film had been shifted from a more adult Touchstone release to a general Disney release and some aspects of the Stevens story (like how the leading lady was portrayed) were softened to appeal to more of a family audience to garner more merchandise sales. Stevens has claimed over the years that the only reasons Katzenberg got involved was that he saw the possibility for toys.
There were promotional tie-ins with Pizza Hut and M&M candies, along with a glut of other merchandise including computer games, books, trading cards, pins, and toys.
“When the film didn't perform in the first couple of weeks like they'd anticipated it should, [Disney] lost faith in it, and just blew out all that merchandise to the Midwest. A lot of it was never even seen on the East or West coasts. It ended up in places like Pick 'n' Save and 99¢ stores,” Stevens said.
In June 1991, Disney produced a 22 minute documentary about the film that aired as a television special titled Rocketeer: Excitement in the Air. No, that documentary never made it as an extra on any of the releases of the film nor will it be shown at that special screening.
A Laser Disc version of the film with no extras was released in 1992 followed by a VHS in 1996 and a DVD version in 1999 with nothing extra to enhance the experience for old fans or new audiences.
On June 21, 2011, D23: The Official Disney Fan Club will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the film with a special screening at the El Capitan Theater.
Film director and writer Kevin Smith will host a panel discussion and reunion of original cast and crew from the film. Following the movie, guests will be invited to tour the Hollywood Museum located in the nearby historic Max Factor building and explore a special exhibition of props and costumes from The Rocketeer, curated exclusively for this event. There will be “exclusive, limited-edition Rocketeer collectibles” for sale. Event ticket cost is $50 per person.
OK, we may never get a deluxe Blu-Ray release of Song of the South from the Disney Company with all the bells and whistles it deserves. However, isn’t it time for a re-issue of the underated The Rocketeer with a Director’s Cut, commentary tracks from the performers, director and writers, a “making of” documentary, an art gallery of work Stevens did for the film, behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes, a tribute to James Horner’s music, the outlines for the two sequels, outtakes of the auditions of all those actors like Johnny Depp and so much more? Gosh, they could even videotape the Kevin Smith discussion at the El Capitan and film the exhibit at the Hollywood Museum and tack those on to a DVD two disc set.
Such a special two-disc set would be almost enough to make me finally go out and buy a Blu-Ray player which is what the Disney Blu-Ray Bullies want me to do by only offering extras on the Blu-Ray editions of Disney films. They don’t even include a basic “making of” documentary on the DVD versions these days. I’ll bet there any many readers of this column who feel the same way about wanting a Super Special Platinum Diamond Anniversary release of The Rocketeer and aren’t willing to wait for another five years for a possible 25th anniversary edition.
Shortly before his death, Stevens talked with actor Bill Campbell about how much he would like to see a sequel to The Rocketeer. Stevens felt with the advances in CGI that “the flying sequences could be amazing!” Stevens’ file folders are full of plots and characters for future installments, including three scripted issues that were never produced for Dark Horse comics. (By the way, Bilson and DeMeo helped with the scripting of the last two published installments of The Rocketeer comic book adventures.)
“Even in remembering all the scenes that we lost in editing for time, and others we never even got to shoot (for too numerous reasons), I still feel incredibly lucky to have as much as we got, cinematically. It's there and nobody can take it away. I'll always be indebted to Joe Johnston, for his faithfulness to the spirit of the series and to writers, Bilson and DeMeo for persevering. So, yeah, I guess you could say I LIKED the film,” Stevens said with a sigh.
So do I. A lot. Although I don’t think I would have cared for Eisner and Katzenberg’s vision that it would be a modern day story with Kevin Costner attired in a NASA astronaut helmet rescuing Diane Lane from the clutches of Jeremy Irons. In fact, even though I watched the film before writing this column, I am now going to watch it again because it makes me smile and feel good. I just wish there were some gosh darn extras to enjoy as well, including Dave Stevens sharing his thoughts but sadly that is now a missed opportunity.