Radio Flyer is a simple enough little story about two young boys who take refuge from a brutal stepfather in their imaginations, in the suburban California hills and in a magical toy wagon that sprouts wings.
But an extraordinary amount of effort, money and difficulty went into making this little red wagon fly. Shut down two weeks into production, revived with wholesale cast and crew changes, tragedy-struck by accidental deaths and plagued with repeated release delays, Radio Flyer, finally in theaters, was a remarkably troubled movie-making effort.
Radio Flyer was supposed to have been the first jewel in a new Hollywood regime's glittering crown.
Peter Guber and Jon Peters were co-wearers of that crown back in 1989. Picked to head Sony's newly purchased Columbia/TriStar Pictures combine, the super hot producers of Rain Man and Batman went on a semilegendary spending spree with the Japanese corporation's money.
Their first conspicuous purchase: a script by a 27-year-old film school graduate, David Mickey Evans, who up to that point had never sold a script for more than $3,500.
Radio Flyer was a high-profile item in the "spec" script fever that struck Hollywood in late '89. Studios were offering unprecedented sums of money for "camera-ready" screenplays that could, presumably, be made into commercial films without first going through the costly process of development.
Other screenplays that sold for big bucks at the time were for The Last Boy Scout and the soon-to-be-released Basic Instinct. But they were written by proven commercial talents: Shane Black (the Lethal Weapon films) and Joe Eszterhas (Flashdance, Jagged Edge), respectively. But Evans was an unknown commodity _ who also wanted to direct.
Peters said okay, reportedly offering Evans $600,000 for the screenplay and an additional $500,000 directing fee. The project began filming in June 1990, with Michael Douglas' Stonebridge Productions overseeing the shoot and Rosanna Arquette headlining as the boys' mom. Two weeks later, Stonebridge pulled the plug.
There were reports that the producers were unhappy with Evans' footage, that the director was taking a darker approach to the material than the studio felt was viable, that the catch-all Hollywood euphemism for trouble on the set _ "creative differences" _ had reached a boiling point.
Whatever the reason, Arquette was suddenly off the movie (she kept her full fee). Evans was relieved of directing duties, but retained sole writing credit and joined Douglas and his partner Rick Bieber in the executive producer's circle. And in came a very happy director, Richard Donner, along with his wife and favorite producer, Lauren Shuler-Donner.
Donner had wanted to direct Radio Flyer from the moment he read it.
Responding to an offer that the Wall Street Journal reported as a record-setting $5-million for himself plus $1-million for Shuler-Donner to produce, Donner got the show back on the road in October 1990, this time with the suddenly hot GoodFellas star Lorraine Bracco as the female lead.
Two months later, script supervisor Nancy Banta Hansen and transportation driver Simon Fuentes were killed when their van was broadsided by a 1-ton truck in Palmdale. That tragedy notwithstanding, principal photography was completed close to schedule in January 1991.
But something was still wrong. In April, Columbia abruptly bumped the picture's scheduled release date from midsummer until an unspecified date in the fall.
This despite a $1-million-plus promotional tie-in with American Dairy Queen restaurants _ the ice cream dispenser's first venture into movie cross-promotion _ that had been designed for the cold treat dealer's peak, hot-weather sales season.
Scott Paper and Kraft Marshmallow tie-ins also were disrupted; the studio said the delayed release date was to give it "time to build a long-lead marketing and publicity screening campaign for a film they feel has great emotional impact."
In August, the film's fall release date was canceled. Frank Price, then chairman of Columbia (since replaced by Mark Canton; Peters had left his post at the top of Sony Pictures earlier in the year), released a statement at the time that called Radio Flyer "a terrific picture that happens not to include traditional modern stars in its leading roles, a fact that increases the importance of special handling in our marketing campaign."
Columbia also intimated that the new target release date, sometime around this year's Presidents' Day weekend, would be ideal _ by then, Donner would be done shooting Lethal Weapon 3, and he and other principals could help promote the film.
As of Wednesday, no interviews with any of Radio Flyer's behind-the-scenes players had appeared in the media.
In its Dec. 9, 1991, edition, the entertainment trade paper Weekly Variety reported that Donner was still shooting new beginnings and endings for the film.
In the same article, the cost of producing the "camera-ready" script was said to have escalated from $15-million to $31-million. Variety did not mention whether the higher figure included the $2-million Columbia reportedly paid Dairy Queen to cover costs of the aborted cross-promotion.