Kevin Costner in ‘Waterworld’: Story Behind the Box Office Flop

by Michael Freeman
(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Though we know Kevin Costner for a variety of successful films and appearances, he’s had his share of flops too. The biggest that comes to mind is the infamous Waterworld, a movie so bad the entertainment you get from it likely only comes from how terrible it is. Not only was it viewed as a failure, but its production was apparently quite troubled too. So, what’s the story behind the big flop?

What Happened

  • The movie’s premise was a rip off and the costs were incredibly high.
  • The script received numerous rewrites.
  • Waterworld’s set had extensive problems, including Kevin Costner himself, constant injuries, and having to rebuild sets.
  • Despite all that, the movie eventually did turn a profit.

A Troubled Beginning and the Most Expensive Movie at the Time

You often hear of big movies having development troubles, but Waterworld’s were there at the concept stage. Ranker reports screenwriter Peter Rader wanted his big Hollywood break and met with Roger Corman to try and get it. For the uninitiated, Corman excelled with low-budget filmmaking and helped launch the careers of Dennis Hopper, Joe Dante, and James Cameron. Rader spoke about the meeting, saying Corman offered him money to make a Mad Max rip-off.

“I had a meeting with Roger Corman’s company in 1986 that stimulated the idea. I met with Brad Krevoy – who went on to produce Dumb And Dumber – and he offered me money to write and direct a Mad Max rip-off,” he stated. Wanting to make his movie different, he decided to set his film on water.

Corman actually passed on it since he thought it would take $5 million to make, but as it garnered interest from other companies, it landed a $30 million budget. However, after setting up everything in Hawaii to shoot, it shot up to $65 million. This trend continued, with the final product costing an incredible $175 million.

The Script Received Numerous Rewrites

Waterworld’s beginning woes didn’t just involve the budget either. Rader said he went through six or seven drafts of the script before it eventually burnt him out. After that, it landed in David Twohy’s hands. The rewriting spree continued before being offered to Joss Whedon who passed on it. Whedon stated while the idea was great, its execution left much to be desired.

Waterworld was a good idea, and the script was the classic,” he said. “They have a good idea, then they write a generic script and don’t really care about the idea. When I was brought in, there was no water in the last 40 pages of the script. It all took place on land, or on a ship, or whatever. I’m like, ‘Isn’t the cool thing about this guy that he has gills?’ And no one was listening.”

The Set was an Absolute Mess

With the movie’s final cost being $175, you have to wonder what happened on the set, right? As it turns out, the set was an absolute disaster. If you can think of something that could go wrong, chances are it did. To name just a few of the problems:

  • Kevin Costner was difficult to work with.
  • Injuries occured all the time.
  • The set had to be remade several times.

First was Kevin Costner himself. Screenrant states he invested $22 million of his own money into Waterworld’s production, but his commitment came at an added cost. The actor reportedly stayed in a waterfront Hawaiin villa that cost $4,500 a night while his peers stayed in condos lacking air conditioning. Rumors stated he even implored the VFX team to use special effects to hide his receding hairline, though he told CNN in 1995 the news was “just bulls–t.”

Injuries also happened to be commonplace. Costner himself almost lost his life to a violent squall and his stunt double was almost carried out to sea. Surfer Bill Hamilton was the man in question and hadn’t shown up for work one day. Searching tirelessly for him, the crew finally found him that evening floating out in the channel, with the sea almost sweeping him away. As if that wasn’t enough, a number of extras on the set almost drowned during the film’s production.

On the subject of the set being a disaster area, the movie needed to build it numerous times. One of the reasons few films actually take place on open water is because of the difficulty obtaining good shots. Not only did the crew sometimes wait hours to get this, but several sets they constructed also sank into the ocean. While they could retrieve some of them, many had to be rebuilt. For reference, much of the movie takes place on the floating Atoll, which cost $22 on its own.

Was it Actually a Box Office Flop?

Despite disappointing earnings at the time and mixed reviews from critics, Waterworld actually made a profit. As stated, it cost $175 million to make but as time passed, it made that back and then some. The film opened with a modest $21.171 million and topped the weekend box office for two weeks in 1995. Forbes reports it made $88.246 domestic and $172 million overseas, bringing it to $264 million overall.

Nevertheless, the movie received extensive negative press, with many calling it “Fishtar” and “Kevin’s Gate.” Forbes also stated this money greatly diminished Costner’s on-screen presence for getting people to theaters.

Like anything though, it’s worth watching to judge for yourself.