Darkman behind-the-scenes details revealed on 30th anniversary
Long before he redefined the modern superhero genre with 2002’s Spider-Man, Sam Raimi first tried his hand with the genre in the cult classic Darkman led by Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand and in a new oral history with The Hollywood Reporter for its 30th anniversary, the talent from in front of and behind the camera have opened up with new behind-the-scenes details on the film.
Based on a short story Raimi wrote paying homage to the classic Universal Pictures horror films, the story centered on mild-mannered scientist Peyton Westlake (Neeson) as he is brutally attacked and left for dead by ruthless mobster Robert Durant (Larry Drake) after Westlake’s girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (McDormand), runs uncovers a conspiracy with a corrupt developer. After an attempt at treating his injuries failed, he is left with super-human abilities and bouts of explosive rage, putting him on a path for vengeance against the man responsible for his disfigurement while also using synthetic skin to reclaim his love.
Before Raimi would dive into his original world, he had actually sought out the rights to both Batman and The Shadow with the plan to bring his unique tone to the properties, but with both already snagged by other filmmakers and studios, he had to shift gears into something that was actually his own.
“This movie was a labor of love for Sam Raimi,” Robert Tapert, producer and longtime collaborator of Raimi, said. “He tried very hard to make a movie about [pulp novel and radio character] The Shadow, but that proved impossible because at that time, it was going to be made by Bob Zemeckis. So Sam said, ‘I am going to create my own superhero and take aspects of other superheroes and incorporate them into the character of Darkman.'”
Neeson and McDormand led the cast at a time before they had become household names and while the list of potential names for the titular role included other talent such as Bill Paxton (Aliens), casting director Nancy Nayor notes “Liam was so perfect” in his audition and brought “such a powerful presence with such emotional range and haunted eyes,” while also revealing the studio was pushing hard for Julia Roberts as the female lead.
“She and Liam had dated briefly and were broken up,” Nayor said. “When they read the audition scene together, both actors had tears in their eyes. It was so intimate. Right after, her agent called and said she felt it might be better if she was taken out of consideration. I think she felt it would just be too awkward for them to work together again so soon under the circumstances.”
“The script appealed to the little boy in me because I know it would have been something I would have loved to have seen on a Saturday matinee growing up in Ireland, and it was a big fat juicy lead in a movie,” Neeson said.
“At the time, I had been sharing a house in Los Angeles with Sam, and [husband] Joel and Ethan Coen,” McDormand said. “When the project came up, Sam was very influential in getting me an audition. I think Liam had a lot to do with helping me get cast. We had a very good time together in the audition. I remember for the intimate scene being attached to the idea of making love with my socks on. I felt that was a really important element of the comfortable relationship. Sam said, ‘I am not sure about the socks,’ and I said, ‘I’m wearing the socks. I am wearing the socks.’”
Having just come off of the first two Evil Dead movies, Raimi was looking to have frequent collaborator and friend Bruce Campbell to star in the titular role, only for the studio to balk at the idea as they didn’t believe he could carry the whole film. Not wanting to leave his Evil Dead lead out of the project, Raimi approached the star with a compromise for himself and the studio.
“I was not enough of a [acting] commodity for Universal, but Liam Neeson at the time, he did a couple of well-known things in Europe, but I don’t think people could have picked him out of a police lineup here,” Campbell said. “Sam threw me the bone and said, ‘Why don’t you be the final [in disguise] Darkman.’ So, I am Darkman, technically (laughs).”
Once the casting process was finished and filming got underway, the cast and crew faced a new problem with the script itself, which Tapert said was “constantly being rewritten” and joked it had “5,000 names” on it by the time it had wrapped, including two future Academy Award winners.
“In hindsight, I am not sure it ever got better; it just incorporated more people’s pisses,” Tapert said. “The Coen brothers were not credited by the guild, but they were instrumental early on with building the structure. The idea sprung from Sam’s head, and Joel and Ethan coaxed him along that road. Chuck Pfarrer was the best at the villains.”
“The shooting of the film was exhausting, not least because of the long hours in the makeup chair, which started off at five hours, but we got that process time down to just over three hours,” Neeson said. “At the same time, I was also preparing to play a bare-knuckle boxer in a film [The Big Man] to be shot in Scotland immediately after completion of Darkman, so I was setting my alarm clock for about 3 a.m. in order to do a workout as preparation, so days were definitely long and for the most part tiring. But the exhaustion factor was in a weird way quite pleasing. I certainly led a very monastic existence for several months.”
A major hurdle Raimi faced in developing the script and heading into production was McDormand’s character Julie, which the writer/director was working to set apart from his past female characters that were frequently criticized. Though the future two-time Oscar winner wouldn’t go so far as to consider her and Raimi’s take on the character leading to “creative differences,” it did cause the occasional rift between the two on set.
“I think one of the things he was trying to say with the character of Julie was to show he could write a strong female character,” McDormand said. “But, in retrospect, I felt like I probably should not have tried to play Julie as a strong female character because at the end of the day, she still was the damsel in distress, waiting for the hero to come save her. I could have done a better job if I’d surrendered to that. I struggled against working in a way that I had never been trained to do. I was trained to be a theater actress. I was struggling with technically how to make movies. So it was an adjustment for me to figure out my purpose inside Sam’s technical world of making a movie. There were times when he thought we could be steamrolled and then pop right back up, like a cartoon character. I chafed against that a lot, but I learned a lot, too.”
In addition to bringing Campbell on in the finale cameo, Raimi reached out to his friend for help during post-production when editing it exhibited “all sorts of problems” for the writer/director, namely in the area of sound mixing, for which Campbell would do uncredited work on.
“We both loved sound. It needed lots of looping, lots of sound effects,” Campbell said. “So I made studio guy money and wound up voicing every criminal who fell to their death. Holy shit, I screamed my brains out. And they’re good, vintage screams. We got to a point where we were mixing and Sam goes, ‘Shit, I need Darkman to yell ‘Julie!’’ And he looks at me and says, ‘Get in the booth.’ So that’s in there. And I did all the television looping for Liam.”
The film faced its biggest problem yet in the editing process for test screenings and the studio, with Raimi first turning to David Stiven and seeing mildly positive feedback from audiences before the studio brought in their own editor Bud S. Smith, who partnered with Universal to keep the director out of the process and sent Raimi and Tapert to Florida for three weeks while Smith “tore into the film and did what I thought would be the right thing to make it viewable.”
“We came back, and the editor had cut it down from two hours to 85 minutes,” Tapert said. “We tested that, and it did not test as well as the longer version, which was Sam’s cut. I think we went through four or five more test screenings, and each time the score got lower and lower, and we got more depressed.”
“When I saw Sam taking this beating, I really got pissed,” composer Danny Elfman said. “There was even a point when I threatened to take my name off the film and return my fee, telling Sam, ‘Whatever I can do to support you on this.’”
“My favorite scene was cut because of a preview, Colin’s character starts to woo Julie, and you go, ‘Maybe this guy is all right,'” Campbell said. “Cut to his apartment and he’s wearing a towel, and he opens up a box and throws gold coins on the bed. Then drops his towel dives onto the coins buck-ass naked. They do previews, and that scene kept popping up. An exec looks at me and goes, ‘I’ll give you a copy of that scene because it’s never going to be in the movie.’ And I was like, ‘You pussy.””
After test screenings went on and the scores continued to remain low, Tapert and Raimi agreed with the studio to lock the film in with Smith’s approved cut and finally release it, but after a last-minute talk with now frequent collaborator Bob Murawski, who said “there is a much better movie than what we are locking right now,” the duo would decide to try one more time at a new cut behind Universal’s back.
“We spent 48 hours basically recutting the entire movie, restoring things we thought were important,” Tapert said. “We added nine minutes back in, things we really liked that the preview audiences would recoil from, but that was what it was meant to do. We locked it — and didn’t tell anybody. Universal came to watch it after the mix, and there was this giant outcry, but there was nothing to be done. The negative had been cut. Critic screenings were 48 hours later. Bob and I advocated very strongly for the deception. Sam, left to his own, probably would not have done that. He is not that kind of guy. But I am.”
“[Universal Pictures chairman] Tom Pollock was seriously fucking furious,” Sean Daniel, former Universal Production President, said. “I remember thinking, ‘That is one ballsy guerrilla move.’ Is it as big a breach of every conceivable protocol of delivering a movie in postproduction? Yes. Totally. It was an Ocean’s Eleven maneuver.”
With Tim Burton’s Batman proving to be a massive success the year prior, Universal decided to take a chance on the project and though there were some conflicts with the studio close to its release, it ended up paying off as the R-rated film opened at No. 1 at the box office and would go on to gross just under $50 million on a $16 million budget and receive rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Its success would spawn a franchise that included comic books, action figures, video games, an unaired TV pilot and two critically-derided direct-to-video sequels.