The Wizard is very much a guilty pleasure. When the film was released it was panned by critics and flopped at the box office, yet many people still talk about it in hushed, almost reverent tones over fifteen years after its release. Although many critics will gladly tell you that it’s nothing more than a Nintendo advert masquerading as a 100 minute feature film, just as many people will blabber excitedly about Power Gloves, Ninja Gaiden and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when asked to give their opinion on this much-maligned popcorn flick. Here at Nintendo Life we fall firmly into the latter camp: The Wizard had a profound effect on us (as you’ll know from our rose-tinted review of the movie), not only because it was the first place we saw Super Mario Bros. 3 in action but because (amazing as it may seem) it’s actually pretty good, too.
Ironically for a film that has an awful lot to do with interactive entertainment, director Todd Holland isn’t a huge fan of video games. “When I was selling myself to Universal Studios to direct the film, I basically said that I hated video games so I’m the perfect director for it,” he reveals. “If I can make these things interesting to me then I can make them interesting to anyone.” Universal obviously agreed because within the space of a weekend Holland was at the helm of the new film. “I read the script on a Thursday, interviewed for the job on Friday, got the job and was prepping the film on Monday.”
Holland found that he had little time to get settled before the cameras started to roll. “We were shooting five weeks after I got the job, which is an incredibly short prep for any feature,” he comments. “The rush was all about Fred Savage’s TV schedule for The Wonder Years. He had certain weeks off to shoot the film and therefore we had to start on time.” Child star Savage was, at the time of Holland’s employment, the only actor attached to the project and the new director quickly began to assemble the rest of the cast. “I hired casting director Mali Finn - later to become very famous for casting all The Matrix films, Titanic and dozens of other brilliant movies,” recalls Holland. “I met with Beau Bridges and convinced him, and then once I had Beau I was able to convince Christian Slater because he was interested in working with Beau, having done a film with his brother, Jeff Bridges.”
Slater had just come off the back of the uncompromisingly bleak teen movie Heathers and was slowly beginning to turn into a serious Hollywood star, and Holland is full of praise for the actor: “Christian was terrific. He liked to have fun in his time off and slept so late that he had to be shaken awake by a production assistant every morning because no alarm clock could wake him. But he was hard working and a real team player; he and Beau really were great together.”
Beau Bridges is a severely underrated actor accustomed to plying his trade in the shadow of his more famous brother Jeff. Beau became a vital member of the cast and helped to create the film Holland ultimately wanted to make. “Beau is the consummate pro,” explains Holland. “He was the big movie star in our cast and really raised the bar for everyone. Beau always understood how I wanted the film to work on an emotional level; there were a lot of complex emotional layers suggested in the script but the trick was to make it all real and keep it at the right level for a family film about video games. No one was smarter than Beau about finding that level.”
Although Slater and Bridges are unquestionably two big Hollywood names, at the time of production Fred Savage was easily the biggest star to be associated with the film. Given the fact that he’s long since faded from the spotlight, it’s easy to forget just how famous he was at the time. “Everywhere we went while shooting, everyone recognized him,” remembers Holland. “People lined the streets in Reno, Nevada as we drove in and girls were screaming Fred’s name and hooting and waving. Fred was 12 years old - he turned 13 while we were shooting - and I was always stunned by the grace with which he handled all of that attention.”
The casting of Savage’s love interest – teenage runaway Haley – caused Holland some headaches. “Universal had a Texas beauty-queen type that they really wanted,” he remembers. “She really wasn’t up to the role acting-wise. I had a fantastic young actress, whose name I cannot recall, that Universal felt wasn’t cute enough. So we were at an impasse. Then seemingly out of the blue Mali Finn found this young girl named Jenny Lewis. Jenny was terrific, such a gifted actress and a great kid." Industry experts will sarcastically comment that one of the unwritten rules of Hollywood is never to work with kids, but Holland is very positive about his two young leads. “I had a really good time working with Jenny and Fred,” he says. “Jenny had a very natural style that was very intuitive. Fred was more cultivated, having had years delivering ‘emotional truth’ day-after-day on The Wonder Years. Their blend of styles was very effective.”
However, arguably the most moving performance came from the 9-year-old Luke Edwards, who played the titular video game ‘wizard’ Jimmy. “Luke did a great job,” comments Holland. “It was not an easy role: the back-story of his character was complex and, quite frankly, dark. This was a boy whose twin sister had drowned before his own eyes; Savage’s character is his half-brother but they’re separated after his mother’s second marriage ended in divorce. That’s quite a mess for a 9-year-old actor to process, so I just tried to keep things simple and help Luke find the end result, without necessarily understanding the entire emotional context of the scene.”
Amazingly, Nintendo was refreshingly ‘hands off’ with the film making process, but as Holland explains, this was more to do with the era than anything else: “Those were more innocent times and it was still news to have a movie embrace such commercial elements. Today, no one even blinks at Transformers being a wall-to-wall General Motors commercial. We expect on–screen characters to be drinking Coca-Cola and using Apple computers, just like we expect Jack Bauer to dial on his Nokia brand phone. That’s just the way everything is done now, but that kind of product placement was news back then.”
Regardless of this, Holland is keen to point out that he received plenty of assistance from the Japanese video game giant. “Nintendo cooperated fully,” he remarks. “Naturally they had products they wanted to promote, like Super Mario Bros. 3 and the Power Glove. It wasn’t like we had to say yes, but we weren’t complaining either. Those products fitted nicely into our script. We were, after all, making a ‘video game’ movie, so much like those General Motors cars in Transformers, we were a good fit with Nintendo. They certainly never told us to change the script in any way.”
Arguably the most famous scene in the entire movie involves the infamous Power Glove controller, and the immortal line “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad”, delivered by the film’s odious villain, Lucas Barton. Although it is now widely regarded as one of the most derided peripherals in the history of video games, there wasn’t a gamer on the face of the planet that didn’t desire one after watching The Wizard. “It was a no-brainer to put the Power Glove into the spotlight, especially to empower our slick villain and put our heroes at a disadvantage thanks to his greater skill, knowledge and experience,” Holland says. “While Nintendo never told us to feature the Glove, they did send a representative to the set to watch over it, as it was very top secret at the time. They also made sure we presented it in the proper light.”
As is the case with all feature films, it wasn’t smooth running all of the time. In fact, Holland had several major issues to deal with during the production of the movie – the script being the most concerning. “The script was way too long,” explains Holland. “I argued with the studio that we were shooting way too much footage - more than we could ever possibly use - and that just makes everything harder and is incredibly wasteful. But I was a young nobody. I lost the argument and was told flat out by Universal to shoot the entire script.” Holland had the last laugh, but it was a hollow victory for the director. ”The first assembly of all the footage was 2.5 hours long. I ended up cutting an hour out of the film for my director’s cut just to reach a length suitable for a family film.”
The quality of the script also created problems. “I liked it when I first read it,” recalls Holland. “But I always wanted more. I pushed for a lot of changes. In the original script, Jimmy wanders for no reason and he never says anything to anyone. I wanted Jimmy to have a secret purpose. All he really wanted was to take his dead sister’s remains – that lunchbox full of her stuff and pictures of their family - back to the last place he could remember them all being happy together. I decided that that place would be these full-scale replica dinosaurs on the freeway outside Palm Springs. The family would learn the truth, and come to a new understanding and appreciation of Jimmy as a deeply wounded boy desperately needing to do one last thing for his dead sister in order to find closure for his grief. And from this emotional catharsis, all their wounds as a broken family could begin to be rebuilt.”
Holland’s proposed rewrite was tentatively approved but it wasn’t the end to the tension that surrounded the production of the film. “My relationship with the producer and Universal fell apart,” he laments. “I’d argued too loudly and from there it all went downhill; it was one fight after another. There was enormous mistrust all around; I had lost all support with the writer, producer and studio.”
This mistrust led to many on-set battles and eventually culminated in the final scene being hastily reworked by Holland. By this stage Universal had expressed doubts about the script rewrites and had informed the director that much of his new material would be cut once filming had been completed. Amazingly, the poignant and moving final scene, where Jimmy puts the memory of his dead sister to rest, was written by the director the night before it was shot and never got the approval of the producers or the studio. “I had the only copy of the revised text – because I had written it the night before – and so I just told each of the actors what to say in rehearsal. That is what we shot and that is the ending of the film as it exists today.” The gamble paid off as test audiences reacted extremely positively to the more emotional plot line and the tear-jerking final scene inside the hollow interior of the Palm Springs dinosaur. “There was never another attack on that storyline after my first director’s cut preview of the film” comments Holland with a wry grin.
Sadly, for all Holland’s effort and despite the considerable pulling power of both Fred Savage and the Nintendo brand, the film wasn’t the massive financial success that Universal had hoped for. “It cost $6M to make, a low budget even then,” says Holland. “It made $13M at the box office, but everyone was expecting that ‘Fred Savage/Nintendo – how can we lose?’ equation to pay off big time, so $13M was a huge disappointment. I couldn’t get a job for seven months after that.”
His film may have been critically attacked and flopped at the box office, but Holland nevertheless harbours fond memories of making the The Wizard. “I loved my cast,” he says with a smile. “We really had fun together.” But does the director still maintain his indifference to video games? “I asked for an Xbox 360 last Christmas as I was really hooked on the TV ads for Gears of War, but I’m really busy with work and I have to confess I never have time to play, so I totally suck at it.”
The feature has been republished with the kind permission of Retro Gamer magazine, where it was previously printed in its entirety. You can subscribe to the magazine by visiting the Imagine Publishing online store.