Tombstone: A Classic That Proved Its Doubtful Studio Wrong

Movies
tombstone:-a-classic-that-proved-its-doubtful-studio-wrong

In February 1994, Roger Ebert felt like he was the last one to get to the party when it came to celebrating a new movie. This would usually be a strange thing for a film critic to admit, particularly when he has a Pulitzer Prize. But despite—or perhaps because—he and fellow critic Gene Siskel hosted the nationally syndicated At the Movies TV series, Disney and its film production label Hollywood Pictures went out of their way to keep the men with the thumbs from seeing Tombstone. Even though the new Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer-starring Western enjoyed a vaunted Christmas Day release, the studio was not so much putting out the movie as they were abandoning what seemed like a Yuletide turkey.

Thus the “End of Year” season came and went, along with all the critics groups accolades and awards lists that go with it, and in that time only a handful of film journalists got a chance to hear Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday purr, “I’m your Huckleberry.” Which a few months later struck Ebert as an injustice. In a 1994 episode of At the Movies, he noted, “We didn’t review Tombstone when it was released late in the holiday season because we couldn’t get a screening in time… so we thought we’d give it a pass. But then a strange thing started to happen. People started telling me they really liked Val Kilmer’s performance in Tombstone. I heard this everywhere I went. When you hear that once or twice, it’s interesting. When you hear it a couple dozen times, it’s a trend. And when you read that Bill Clinton loved the performance, you figure you better catch up with the movie.”

He did, and like most audiences who discovered the film over the past 30 years, Ebert would sing its praises forever after. Even so, whenever he brought up Tombstone while reviewing a new Russell or Kilmer film, he would acknowledge it “never got the recognition it deserved.” How could it when the studio essentially tried to bury it? Here is the story of why that premature entombment occurred, and how Tombstone rose from the dead to enter the realm of myth.

The Western Production That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Tombstone was Kevin Jarre’s dream project before it turned into a nightmare. Only 39 years old when he stepped foot in the deserts of Arizona with a film camera, Jarre planned for Tombstone to mark his directorial debut. While it would’ve been his first time as the helmer, filmmaking was already in his blood, with Jarre being the son of TV actress Laura Devon and stepson to the legendary film composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago). Kevin, meanwhile, penned the screenplay to arguably the greatest film ever made about the American Civil War, 1989’s Glory.

It was the strength of that Glory script that brought Jarre’s Tombstone treatment to the attention of actor Kevin Costner, who circled the project until he discovered his old Silverado pal, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, also wanted to make a Wyatt Earp picture. So Costner dropped out of Tombstone while publicly announcing in the trades the movie Wyatt Earp. Jarre claimed in the press that Costner’s maneuver was “an attempt to crush my picture.” Costner’s talent agency CAA certainly tried to handicap Tombstone by refusing to let any of their clients read the Tombstone screenplay.

But as a 1993 EW report noted, Tombstone still had an advantage: they were ready to shoot… if they could only find a cast. So the producers angled to do the film relatively quick and cheap, letting Jarre direct and going so far as to sneak Kurt Russell, a CAA client but also an actor who lost out on the lead role of Bull Durham to Costner, a copy of the Tombstone script through a rival agency’s liaison.

In a 2006 interview, Russell recalled, “Jarre and Costner were going to do the movie. Then Costner decided he liked the idea of doing not Tombstone but Wyatt Earp, with Kasdan writin’ it. And he gave the movie to Kevin with his best wishes. ‘Good luck.’ I got the script from my old [agency] Jarre was with, William Morris. And I thought it was a phenomenal script, and I called and said I wanted to do it, and they said [wait a minute]—because Costner was at CAA… and there was the Kasdan project and blah blah blah.”

Russell was undeterred. He even went so far as to go to Andrew G. Vajna’s Cinergi Pictures to independently raise $25 million for the picture. Disney/Hollywood Pictures, meanwhile, would distribute… if they could get Tombstone out in theaters by Christmas Day of that year, a full six months ahead of Costner/Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp. To do this, Tombstone needed to start shooting barely seven months before release.

The one thing that everyone who worked on Tombstone praises is Jarre’s layered, witty, and morally complex screenplay. What they are also uniformly circumspect about is his brief and bitter stint at attempting to direct it. The basic facts of the situation are plain and grim: Jarre directed Russell, Kilmer, Sam Elliot, and the rest of the cast for a mere four weeks. After which time, Disney and Cinergi unceremoniously fired him. The specifics of why he was let go are trickier.

According to PR-massaged statements (and the film’s Wikipedia page), Jarre was allegedly taken off the picture because he fell drastically behind schedule. In EW’s 1993 expose, producer James Jacks said, “Kevin was shooting in an unconventional, old-fashioned John Ford style, with very few close-ups. Andy Vajna and others finally felt that when Kevin was finished, the movie wouldn’t work.” Actor Sam Elliot, meanwhile, told the same publication, “I knew from the third day Kevin couldn’t direct. He wasn’t getting the shots he needed.”

Yet actor Michael Biehn, who played Johnny Ringo in Tombstone, more recently disputed some of the official rationalizations. In a blog post he co-wrote five years ago, the actor did not recall Jarre “falling behind,” but that he was shooting the film in a manner reminiscent of Ford: “stately and slow,” and not providing the type of coverage for high-speed editing in vogue in ‘90s action movies. More critically for Biehn, Jarre’s obsessive nature as a writer was not lending itself to collaboration.

“Kevin’s ‘my way or the highway’ insistence on his vision [was] not providing his actors sufficient creative space to bring their own visions to their roles. To many, it appeared the more they tried to persuade Kevin to accommodate their input, the more he dug in. Demoralization and dread set in.”

Whatever the actual reasons for Jarre’s dismissal, the end result was that they only used about “15 bits and pieces” (as per EW) from Jarre’s four weeks of directing in the finished film. Everything else was ordered reshot by a studio that still wanted a Christmas release. It seemed like anarchy and chaos had returned to the Old West.

‘It was Hard Physically to Do’

In 2006, star Russell sat down with True West for the aforementioned interview, during which he made a confession: he kind of, maybe, basically directed Tombstone. This might be news to the folks who watch the movie. Onscreen George P. Cosmatos is credited as the director in big bold letters. But after the Greek helmer passed away in 2005, Russell felt he had respected his agreement with Cosmatos to not discuss what happened on set while the latter was still alive.

“[Tombstone] was the one time I had gone out and got the money,” Russell said. “I backed the director; the director got fired, so we brought in a guy to be a ghost director. They wanted me to take over the movie, and I said, ‘I’ll do it, but I don’t want to put my name on it. I don’t want to be the guy.’ I said to George, ‘I’m going to give you a shot list every night and that’s what’s going to be.’ I’d go to George’s room, give him the shot list for the next day, that was the deal. ‘George, I don’t want any arguments. This is what it is. This is what the job is.’”

According to EW, Cosmatos’ background in Sylvester Stallone action movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra leant itself to designing more visceral shoot ‘em ups, including the film’s new opening sequence where the villainous “Cowboys” gang attacks a Mexican wedding. Cosmatos also invented several montages at the end of the movie where Earp and Doc Holliday massacre all the Cowboys (as opposed to the four alleged to be their handiwork in the 1880s). Russell also credited Cosmatos with having an eye for selecting the locations for the film’s more remote sequences. Largely, though, several cast members contend Russell took the primary leadership role on set, especially when it came to working with actors, including Kilmer.

In 2017, Kilmer wrote on his own blog, “Kurt is solely responsible for Tombstone’s success, no question.” He went on to add, “I watched Kurt sacrifice his own role and energy to devote himself as a storyteller, even going so far as to draw up shot lists to help our replacement director… who came in with only two days of prep.”

Indeed, the other key change Russell made is rewriting the Tombstone screenplay he originally so admired. Despite likening Jarre’s script to a “Western Godfather,” Russell always thought 20 pages needed to come out, and after Jarre was removed, he and producer Jacks ultimately cut about 29 pages from the screenplay, including much of Wyatt Earp’s intended complexity. In the 2006 interview, Russell admitted he decided to pare down Wyatt to an “aura character” while beefing up the roles of other supporting characters, most notably Kilmer’s Doc Holliday.

“You meet him, you see him, you know who he is,” Russell said while expanding on what an aura character is. “When you see him step off the train, that’s it. There’s the guy. And then Doc Holliday fleshes him out… I knew the script extremely well, and I could do that with Wyatt because I was going to play him. I knew what I needed from the character in terms of the movie, in terms of making the movie work. But it wasn’t fun to do that. It wasn’t fun to cut out eight of the reasons you wanted to do the movie.”

He went on to describe the whole process as “physically painful,” right down to where he was sleeping only four hours a night. But he is proud of the movie they rescued from the crisis.

Despite Russell apparently cutting his role down more than most, the result still led to some hurt feelings about what became a more simplified tale of good versus evil. Elliot said in 1993, “Initially, the screenplay was one of the best I’ve ever read. If I was given the screenplay as it is now, I’d have to pass on it.” And more recently in his own online recollections, Biehn lamented the ambiguous shadings offered to Johnny Ringo and the rest of the Cowboys being deleted as they were turned into “black-hatted” villains.

The production was, as Ebert later put it, “creative chaos,” where the film was being ruthlessly chopped and cropped down to the wire in order to make a December release date. And at least in 2006, Russell still seemed to rue how quickly the film was put together when he said, “I didn’t get a chance to edit the movie, which I thought was unfortunate because it could have been one of the greatest Westerns ever, ever, ever made. And it’s pretty damn good. We had a great cast [and] a phenomenal script.”

Disney thought otherwise.

It Could Have Been a Contender

When Tombstone opened on Christmas 30 years ago, it did respectable business for a film that was rushed out and, by its stars’ own estimation, was barely marketed or reviewed. It debuted in third place during the holiday weekend, earning $6.4 million. But then it was also behind two movies that had been in theaters for either weeks (The Pelican Brief) or more than a month (Mrs. Doubtfire). Nonetheless, word of mouth slowly got out.

“I read this great article in the L.A. Times about the phenomenon of Tombstone,” Russell recalled. “The studio was like shocked at what they had—they didn’t know what to do with the movie. It was out there, and they were like, ‘How are things going with Tombstone?” They didn’t promote it very much, didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t know where it was coming from.”

It even eventually got on the radar of critics who became belated champions of the film, including Siskel and Ebert, both of whom adored Kilmer’s performance. On the same February ’94 episode of At the Movies, Siskel said, “It was well hidden from us. We were prevented from seeing it, which is unfortunate.”

For fans of a movie considered a stone cold classic 30 years later, this might be a moot point. Even in its compromised, fought over, and rushed form, the finished film is widely beloved. It also overshadowed Kasdan and Costner’s far pricier and Ford-esque Wyatt Earp, which grossed $25 million domestically, less than half of Tombstone’s eventual $57 million cume.

Yet if the studio had supported Tombstone from the start, its reception and immediate legacy might have been quite different, chiefly for Kilmer who didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for playing Doc Holliday or any other film. An action-heavy Oater from the director of Cobra might have always been a tough sell to the Academy, but if the performance—or the whole film—had the backing of major film critics groups, it might have found acceptance from an Academy which in the same year gave the Best Supporting Oscar trophy to Tommy Lee Jones for the equally genre-leaning The Fugitive. Awards nominations (or wins) and buzz would have also raised the movie’s profile and gotten more audiences to see the movie during its theatrical run, instead of discovering it on video after Bill Clinton said Kilmer gave one of his favorite performances.

No matter what, however, Tombstone rose from the cacophony of confusion, violence, and misery on its set to tell a story that became a legend. A bit like Wyatt and Doc when you think about it.

The post Tombstone: A Classic That Proved Its Doubtful Studio Wrong appeared first on Den of Geek.

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