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The Making of CAPRICORN ONE
A retrospective look at writer-director Peter Hyam's sci-fi conspiracy yarn.
By Frederick C. Szebin
April 20, 2000
Fifteen years before The X-Files
made government conspiracy a way of life, there was Capricorn One
. Born from post-Watergate angst and television's increasing technological versatility, the film remains an effective thriller and adventure story, tightly-written and tautly directed by Peter Hyams, wherein the idea of government secrets to be kept at any cost is even more viable today than it was in 1978.
In the story, Colonel Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Lt. Col. Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and Commander John Walker (O.J. Simpson) are set to be NASA's best hope for sending a manned mission to Mars when, in the middle of the countdown, the three astronauts are removed from the capsule as the mission continues without them. They listen as they are transported to a remote desert base; they hear themselves from previous mission rehearsals give the pre-launch litany and hear as world news announces the launch of the world's first manned mission to the red planet. Once ensconced in the secret base, NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) explains the bizarre situation: it was discovered in run-throughs that the Capricorn life-support systems would have failed, killing the astronauts. Scrapping the mission is out of the question, as it would be the last nail in the coffin for NASA, as interest in and continued funding of the space program had begun to take a nose-dive. To save the program, Kelloway has been working with a secret team to fake the mission.
At first refusing to go along with the scheme, the astronauts are told that if they don't, a bomb on the plane carrying their families will be set off. With no other way to turn, Brubaker, Willis and Walker go along with the ruse, but finally can't take the increasing guilt of the lie they are helping to perpetrate. Their final decision is made for them when the Capricorn capsule malfunctions on its faked reentry as the world watches. As far as the rest of the planet knows, all aboard were killed. To keep the secret, Kelloway and his associates have no other alternative than to kill the astronauts. Brubaker, Willis and Walker escape in the jet that brought them, but run out of gas and have to go their separate ways in the desert as NASA-hired assassins follow, killing Willis and Walker while Brubaker continues on his trek to find a populated area.
Meanwhile, reporter Bob Caulfield (Elliot Gould) takes a tip from mission control technician Elliot Whitter, who says the transmissions that the astronauts are making back to Earth couldn't possibly have come from deep space. When Whitter disappears and Caulfield is nearly framed for drug possession, the reporter discovers the plot and saves Brubaker with the help of a crop dusting pilot (Telly Savalas) to return the last living member of the Capricorn One crew to the public as Kelloway, Brubaker's wife and all the networks look on.
The story developed years before, when Peter Hyams, then working at CBS's Boston office, was helping to cover the Apollo moon shots. While working there, Hyams witnessed the NASA-constructed simulations to be aired on network news, showing the world what was happening with the craft in space as it flew to its destination. As Hyams watched, he began to notice just how real the simulations looked.
'I grew up with parents who believed if it was in newspapers, it was true,' says Hyams. 'I was part of the generation that believed if it was on television, it was true. I remember while working at CBS one day, looking at the monitor and thinking, 'Wait a minute! Everybody is looking at the simulation. Suppose you did a really good simulation?' The NASA moon program was a story with only one camera. Normally, all big stories have tons and tons of cameras for thorough coverage. Not so with the moon shots. It all had to be done from the studio. That raised questions in my mind about how the story could be presented. The whole Watergate backlash kicked in. I once said that I owe my career to H.R. Haldemann.'
Due to the nature of his work at CBS, Hyams had accessibility to vast amounts of NASA research, such as mission books and command module schematics from which to draw inspiration. He began writing the script around 1974-1975, with plans of developing a feature film that he would direct himself. By that time, Hyams was established in television and feature films as a writer, director and producer on such projects as T.R. Baskin, Goodnight My Love
and the police drama Busting
, featuring future Capricorn One
star Elliott Gould. But in the mid-1970s, he directed Fat Chance
with Natalie Wood and Michael Caine, a movie considered so bad that it was barely released under the title Peepers
, and nearly put Hyams out of business as a filmmaker of any kind. What saved him and his burgeoning project was friend Paul Lazarus, producer of Michael Crichton's Westworld
and its sequel, Futureworld
'As happens in California when you are a filmmaker and your movie is deemed unreleasable, you become ice cold,' Lazarus says of Hyams' state of being in 1977. 'Peter said to me, 'Gosh, I have a couple of scripts, but nobody will read them.' I read them, two of which became films I ultimately made with Peter: Capricorn One
and Hanover Street
. Given where we were in Peter's career, it was indeed true that nobody was interested in a Peter Hyams movie.'
But the wily producer was not about to be stopped by Hollywood's brick wall. Lazarus turned to England when he had a tip that Sir Lew Grade, the British impresario whose ITC production company brought forth Space: 1999
and such features as Voyage of the Damned, March or Die
and The Cassandra Crossing
, might be open for a new project. The agent who tipped Lazarus said that if he called the producer at 5:30 am London time, Grade would answer his own phone, since his secretary wouldn't be in yet.
'I made that call,' says Lazarus, 'and he seemed surprised to have someone he never heard of on the other end of the phone. I told him that I had a movie for him, and he said, 'My plate is completely full. What's the movie about?'his curiosity getting the better of him. I told him it was about a phony Mars shot in which the bad guys are NASA and the United States government. He took a beat and said, 'Meet me in New York on Sunday and bring your filmmaker. Who is it again?' I told him it was Peter Hyams, to which he said, 'I've never heard of him.' I had this wonderful sigh of relief'Lazarus laughs'that he wasn't going to say, 'Oh my God! He's just had an unreleasable picture at Fox!''
The next day, Lazarus talked to Hyams, who then talked to his agents, who demanded that the only way the director should make the trip from California to New York is if Grade sent him a ticket. 'I said to Peter, 'Look, they're just playing agent games because they haven't been able to get you any work,' Lazarus recalls. 'The truth is Lord Grade is not known for his distinguished taste, but he is certainly not known as a welsher. If he says he is going to fly us to New York, do it! What the hell? You don't have any other choice.'
'We rang the bell at Grade's hotel that Sunday morning at 9:00 am, and he opens the door, standing there in his silk bathrobe with the whitest legs I have ever seen in my life, and this enormous Churchill cigar in his mouth. He said, 'Hello boys. You're the people with the Mars shot?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Wonderful. You have a deal. Thank you for coming in.' We walked out, and Peter said, 'What does that mean?' I said, 'I don't have the foggiest idea! We've flown 3000 miles for a one-sentence meeting!''
What it turned out to mean was that Grade was going to option the story and wanted a rewrite, which was as contractually far as he would go at that moment. 'I worked on the rewrite with Peter,' says Lazarus. 'We submitted it to Grade, who said, 'Fine. Come to England to meet with me.' We took separate planes because I was in California and Peter was in New York. His plane got delayed. I decided to go to the meeting anyway because you don't keep studio heads waiting, and if it got too difficult there would always be Peter arriving on the next plane.
'So, I went to see Grade,' Lazarus continues, 'and he said to me, 'There's too much crawling around in the desert.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'People don't like to see crawling around in the desert.' I said, 'Lew, it's a page of description. It's less than 15 seconds of screen time.' Then he said, 'Oh, well, Ok. Then the script's fine. We'll make it.' By the time Peter came in, I told him this story, and he said, 'What does that mean?' I said, 'I don't have the foggiest idea. My meetings for this project have taken a total of less than a minute!''
From that point, Lord Grade's game was to pre-sell the picture to various foreign investors and television networks by creating a package of sellable stars. Previous to Capricorn One
, all of Grade's productions had been star-basedone popular actor to build a deal aroundbut CO was an ensemble piece with eight main characters, which didn't deter the producer at all. Lazarus felt that his role at this point in the project's development was to convince Grade that he could sell the film with eight mid-level, recognizable names, rather than base the whole production on one huge star. O.J. Simpson was one of the first cast, not particularly because of his acting abilities, but because he was represented by the agent who had introduced Lazarus to Grade in the first place, and the agent wanted his client, a recognizable personality who had appeared in Grade's The Cassandra Crossing
, to be in the picture.
Candice Bergen, later to star in the long-running sitcom Murphy Brown
, was a friend of Lazarus' and agreed to play the role of reporter Judy Drinkwater. Bergen pulled out after being offered a larger role in a Louis Malle film, and Karen Black (Burnt Offerings
) was hired to take on the acting chores. James Brolin had worked with Lazarus in Westworld
, and was pegged as Brubaker. Both Lazarus and Hyams were fans of Elliot Gould and, despite reports of drinking and drug problems, they happily signed him to play Caulfield. Brenda Vaccaro, who appeared in such films as Midnight Cowboy
and Airport 77, was hired to play Brubaker's wife. With Sam Waterston as the third astronaut, the leads were filled with the exception of one character, Albain, the crop dusting pilot who helps Caulfield rescue the final Capricorn survivor.
'Peter and I wanted Donald Pleasance,' Lazarus recalls of the actor who had appeared in Fantastic Voyage
and The Night of the Generals
, and would later star in John Carpenter's Halloween
. 'Grade kept saying, 'No, no, no. I'm going to use Telly Savalas.' At that point, Savalas was something of a joke, I thought, because he was doing Kojak
, and everything he said on that show was, 'Sweetheart...baby...' It didn't seem appropriate for this movie. I called Grade and said, 'Why are you doing this?' He said, 'If you must know, if I put Savalas in it's worth another half million dollars from network television.' I said, 'Fine. Just tell me the truth and we have no problem with that. I'll deliver Peter's vote for him.' Telly was the last person cast, and he completed the package. From there, it was a 'go' picture.'
Aside from those casting manipulations, the filmmakers were left alone on the actual production, given the rare opportunity to make the film they wanted with absolutely no interference, comments or input from the man putting up the moneyin this instance, Lord Grade. The cigar-chomping entrepreneur merely shuffled through the budget outline, accepting Lazarus' word that the production could be pulled in for its $4.8 million cost in 50 shooting days in 1977. The only time producer and director heard from Grade was a week before production when Lazarus got a call from the enigmatic moneyman.
'He said, 'You're about to start?'' Lazarus recalls. 'I told him we were. He said, 'You know, I'm making a television series, Space: 1999
.' I said, 'I'm vaguely familiar with it. That's the one with Barbara Bain and Martin Landau?' He said, 'Yes. They're on hiatus. I have all those Martian sets and was hoping you might be able to use them.' I said, 'Lew, they don't go to Mars. That's the point of the picture.' He quickly said, 'Oh, yes! Well, it was just an idea!'' Lazarus laughs, 'That was the only call we had from him from the time he committed to the picture, until production.'
The key to getting such a film made within the budget available was to have NASA's cooperation, a situation Lazarus had enjoyed on Futureworld
. A stunt-heavy picture, Capricorn One
could only gain from the Space Administration's assistance, but the very nature of the storyNASA killing its own to keep a secretcaused Lazarus to despair of any further help from the organization.
'This is a highly unlikely film to get NASA cooperation, because they are the bad guys in the movie,' says Lazarus. 'But I called my contact at the NASA Clear Lake facility, and he said he would have to see a script. I said to Peter, 'We're dead.' I sent the script and my contact said, 'Oh, it's a good story! We'll be happy to give you our prototype landing module.' We didn't have to build any of that! It came up from Orange County, California. In a sense, it's tax-payer paid for, but anybody who's been around the government knows that if it's not something they like, you're not going to get cooperation.
'We had untold savings, not to mention authenticity, to get those capsules and other materials from NASA,' Lazarus continues. 'Much after the fact, I said to someone at NASA, 'How could you possibly have approved that script?' He said, 'If it had gone to Washington, you would have been finished, but because we liked working with you on Futureworld
, I took it upon myself to give cooperation.' I said, 'We're really grateful and surprised.' He said, 'I thought you might be.''
Hyams and Lazarus made Capricorn One
without any real mishaps except for an unlucky cameraman. The film opens with an impressive shot of the rocket on its launch pad as countdown continues. This was actually a ten-foot model that was shot from a helicopter on Padre Island off Galveston. While shooting run-ups so that audiences couldn't determine the model's real scale, the cameraman fell from the chopper. Even though it was not from a great height the man was rushed to the hospital and examined while Lazarus waited outside the examining room for word on his crewman.
'The doctor came out after examining him and said, 'He's fine, but he does have the worse case of clap I've ever seen!'Lazarus laughs'That's his problem. It's not covered by workman's comp.' Other than that, we had no injuries in the making of the picture. People got along well together. It's a movie I like to describe as being made without grown ups because there were no studio people around. We saw our own dailies. Nobody else saw them. When you make a movie that way and put all your energy into positive effort, the results come out terrifically, both artistically and financially.'
Rumor has it that the director can be difficult, which Lazarus admits as the man's friend, but the producer also says such a world view gives the director a strong hold on his material, as well as the set on which he works. 'He is very demanding and is single-minded to the point of tunnel vision when he is involved in a film,' Lazarus says of Hyams. 'He's a perfectionist and works insane hours. He'd be the first person to tell you he's crazy, that the movie is everything, and that he has very little patience for people who try to phone it in. I remember the day we were shooting O.J. Simpson's death scene. We arrived at the Mojave Desert at around 5:30 in the morning. I was talking to Peter when O.J. comes out of the cast van to say hello. Peter said, 'Do you have your lines down, Juice?' O.J. looked at him and said, 'Oh, I guess I'll know them at the time.' Peter stared at him, and I thought he was going to attack the man! He said, 'Juice, let me tell you something. You have 15 minutes to know that scene; otherwise, forget your close up. You're gonna be a black dot dying in the middle of the desert.'' Lazarus laughs, 'O.J. looked at this crazy person who couldn't believe that Juice hadn't prepared in the way he had prepared for this day. Juice said, 'Ok,' went to his trailer and came back in 15 minutes with his lines!
'On the other hand,' Lazarus continues, 'we had Telly Savalas for a day. I went down to LA to pick him up at Burbank Airport in a helicopter. We coptered him up to the Mojave Desert. I'd never met Savalas in my life. He said to me, 'You sure I can get out of here in a day?' I said, 'Look, I can promise you this; you will never meet a director as prepared as Hyams. If you've got your lines down, you're out of here tonight.' He said, 'Don't worry about me.' Indeed, Savalas came on that set completely professional, and I thought he brought a whole burst of energy to the last part of the picture. To my amazement he was not Kojak; he was Telly Savalas, Character Actor. I thought he was great, and far better than Donald Pleasance would have been because there was more energy with Savalas. But, again, when you deal with Peter there aren't a lot of problems in how he's going to shoot it. He does his homework. The crew goes both ways on him because he's tough, but he's decisive. I would far rather work with a director like that than someone like, say Robert Redford who is a sweet, wonderful guy, but can't make up his mind. A Hyams picture will come in on budget. A Redford picture will come in at twice budget, and that's only because of decisiveness. There are other aspects of Peter's personality that can be abrasive, but as a professional you love guys who know what they want.'
Although the desert scenes, with the escaping Capricorn astronauts running for their lives, look horrendous, Lazarus assures that they were not that difficult and that no real problems arose. Probably the most disturbing image in the film is when Brolin's Brubaker has to eat a freshly-killed rattlesnake to stay alive. The meat was actually Tuna Sashimi, but the scene made such an impression on the airline industry when they bought the film to show on long flights that Brubaker's very moist, life-saving lunch was the only scene they requested be cut. Airlines didn't seem to have a problem with Brubaker's flight for freedom on Albain's bi-plane wing, a remarkable sequence that was part blue-screen and actual aerial footage of helicopters trying to down the crop duster's plane. A special mount had to be invented to hold the cameras to show the copter's pontoons hitting the plane's wings in an effort to crash it. These stunts passed without incident and remain some of the most thrilling footage in the picture.
The only problems the film faced were when it was time for distribution. Grade had made a deal with Warner Brothers that called for a February release. Warners put up $2.5 million as a guarantee and committed to spending $2 to 3 million to open the picture at that time of the year. Between that advance and his foreign deals, he pretty well had his nut covered.
'Peter and I were of a mind that it was a better picture than a February movie,' says Lazarus. 'We wanted a Spring/early Summer release. Warners said, 'It's just another potboiler, a programmer picture. It's not going to be able to hold its own.' Grade was not involved at this point. Warners considered it an inner-city action picture. We thought it was a broad-based concept thriller rather than hard-core action. They said, 'You're going to get killed if you open it in Westwood.' We put the picture in Westwood on a Friday night, and people stood and cheered. Warners considered that a freak result. We took it to San Francisco, got the same result, and Warners said, 'Gee, there's more here than we thought. We'll open it in May, and we're going to have to spend considerably more.''
The studio wanted to redo their deal with Grade, who had a promise of 25% of Warners' gross, quite a chunk of change. Grade refused to revise the contract as the studio put even more money in the publicity till so they could open Capricorn One
in May, 1978.
'The real reason why this movie became successful was because Superman
was late,' says Hyams, who says he heard at one time that the studio wanted to dump the picture with releases only in the South. 'Warner Brothers didn't know much about our movie. We had a preview that was incredible, and they said, 'Well, it's a lot of Hyams' friends!' So we went to Seattle for a preview, and the marketing network for Warner Brothers sent a note back saying, 'I don't think Hyams has this many friends in Seattle!' Superman
was supposed to come out that summer and was delayed. Suddenly, Warner Brothers had this wonderful pattern of theaters and bookings, and no film. They put us in that slot, and that's why it was so successful.' Capricorn One
did hold its own until it hit a brick wall in the form of the other summer blockbusters of that year, which included Grease
and National Lampoon's Animal House
. Still, the film was the most successful independently-financed film of the year, despite what Lazarus considers to be a rare, but missed opportunity.
'I think we blew the unusual opportunity we had in getting to design the film's advertising campaign,' says Lazarus. 'We never found the proper campaign. The one-sheet, which was of the studio arcs lighting up a Martian set, is completely unreadable unless you've already seen the picture and know the story. It makes no sense. The stuff that was used in the foreign release, which was action scenes of Brolin trying to get on the bi-plane, being chased by the NASA guys, is at least suggestive of an action picture. Warners went with our ads because we picked it when we couldn't find anything else in the campaign. It's not the easiest picture to sell in a single image. We certainly never found it. I think the television spots were first rate, and that's what generated strong opening grosses.'
The producer had only one other problem with the film as a whole; any thriller depends a little on coincidence, happenstance and happy accident to make its plot roll merrily on. Any one of these potentially-disastrous clichés can make a good story seem a little silly if not handled carefully. There is one such scene with which Lazarus continues to have a problem.
'When you make a thriller,' he says, 'and look at it with hindsight, there are always things that make you think, 'I wish I had been more clever.' I remember when I read the script, one of the things that bothered me then, and bothered me in the movie because I could never figure out a way to help Peter with it, was when Elliott Gould goes to the old army base where they had faked the Mars landing and discovers the medal that Brolin had left in the sand along the floor of the barracks. It's such a rank coincidence that you think to yourself, 'Whoa, boy! Couldn't we do anything better?' And we couldn't. I read it and thought, 'Aw, gimme a break!' Peter said, 'Give me something better. You find something that will sell it that you like better, and I'll be happy to change it.' I worked and worked, but couldn't find anything that seemed credible that would point Elliott in the right direction. It's one of those movie coincidences. I occasionally use that picture in my film classes, and it holds up. It's a picture that I think has a tightness to it and an efficiency and a cast that seems to believe what they're doing. I like it. I think it's a movie that works well.'
Lazarus never heard what NASA officials thought of the film that portrayed them as frauds and killers. Despite the Watergate scandal being only four years past at the time, some reviews were genuinely angry over the supposition that a government agency would perpetrate such a hoax, but such criticisms only added fuel to Capricorn One
's fire, and didn't bother the producer a bit.
'There was some of that,' Lazarus says of the negative press. 'I look at that as helpful. Controversy is basically solid and good for selling motion pictures. I think the reviews that counted, the trades and local television, were real strong. When someone takes you to task for sullying the flag, then to hell with them. Capricorn One
was, by definition, a US Government Conspiracy picture. It ends with that freeze frame, the government is taken to task, and I have absolutely no problem with that. That's the nature of the beast. Audiences cheered at the end of that picture.'
Audiences had every right to cheer this one. Capricorn One
is not an All The President's Men
expose; it is pure movie making entertainment, a matinee thriller with a dark edge. One may wonder what would be the true outcome of an aerial dogfight between sleek military helicopter and a rickety crop duster, but this movie isn't concerned with such details, and neither was the audience.
Jerry Goldsmith's driving score sets the tone immediately as the film opens with quick-cutting red credits. It's like a shot of aural adrenaline and remains one of the composer's best scores. The cast proved themselves admirably, and if O.J. Simpson hadn't become so infamous for a number of things later on, one could look back on his death scene in this picture and applaud (well, I guess we still can applaud, albeit for somewhat different reasons). He was quite good as a dying man in the desert, losing his mind just before being surrounded by NASA's deadly forces.
If none of Hyams' films ever become classicsor even remain in the mind once the lights come upthey are generally good in-the-moment viewing experiences that keep audiences involved in the dark as the director utilizes classic Hollywood tools of suspenseful filmmaking. He's good with the chase, the action sequence and suspending disbelief. If his pictures remain a little thin in the character department, well, don't gripe too much. On the whole, he keeps the basic agreement between director and audience: entertain me, and I'll watch. Capricorn One
remains one of his best, because he gave what he promised, an entertaining thriller that made viewers cheer.