Chapter 6: Jurassic Sam
Because the history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.
--Dr. Ian Malcolm, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.
In 1990 Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park was published and quickly became a best-seller. Just as quickly, Hollywood smelled something very pleasant -- profits rolling in from a blockbuster movie made from Crichton's book, and so began bidding for film rights. According to Tom Pollock, MCA Motion Picture Group Chairman, Crichton decided to not auction his book in the conventional sense, but rather 'set a very high price on it and decided to sell it to the studio and the filmmaker who could and would do the best possible job on the film'. Universal Pictures won the rights to the book. The fact that Universal had chosen Steven Spielberg as director for the film undoubtedly helped in making up Crichton's mind as to which studio he would sell the rights of his novel. The fact was that Crichton had already more or less promised the story to Spielberg, who had read his work and loved it. Crichton felt that Spielberg's past experience with movies such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind would make him the perfect director for Jurassic Park, and so Crichton told him, 'I'll give it to you if you guarantee me that you'll direct the picture.' In the end, Crichton's wishes were granted.
Spielberg wanted to do Jurassic Park mainly because he has had a fascination with dinosaurs his entire life. There were several dinosaur movies that he remembered from his past that he called on in the preproduction work, movies that had certain scenes or aspects that he especially liked, such as Gorgo and Godzilla. But the most important thing aspect that Spielberg wanted to bring out into the forefront with Jurassic Park was realism -- the feeling that this could really happen. Crichton had felt that realism was the most important aspect of the story as well and, beginning in 1981, he spent several years working on the novel in order to make certain that every point was feasible. Where were they going to get the dinosaur DNA? How would they fill in the DNA's missing gaps? Where in the world was all the money going to come from in order to do all of this -- the research, the DNA synthesis, the theme park? Eventually Crichton was able to answer all his questions to his own personal satisfaction. Crichton also decided to have a character -- a mathematician who specialises in chaos theory, Dr. Ian Malcolm -- as a mouthpiece to voice Crichton's own worries that there is rampant commercialisation of genetic engineering; something, Crichton says, 'which is, I think, a very serious problem and one that we are still not facing'. Crichton's scenario where a self-absorbed billionaire decides to create a theme park featuring 65-million-year-old dinosaurs 'emphasised rather nicely the idea that all this amazing technology is being used for essentially commercial and frivolous purposes'. The idea of a theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs is not as far-fetched as it once was, since mosquitoes in amber were discovered during the production of Jurassic Park. This is the very basis of the engineering of dinosaurs in the film: mosquitoes preserved in amber were the sources of dinosaur DNA which was used to 'clone' new dinosaurs. Also, the very real Human Genome project, which makes use of scientists the world over, has made advances beyond the wildest imagination in the area of genetic engineering.
Spielberg and Crichton worked closely together in order to make the film follow the novel as closely as possible. Spielberg felt some changes were necessary, however, in order to make the transition from novel to film as smooth as possible. Spielberg reduced the number of dinosaurs in the film, as they were extremely expensive to create and he was determined to keep Jurassic Park within budget. Spielberg added a subplot of a love interest between Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler. He also inverted the ages of the two children; in the novel Tim was the older child and Lex was little more than a whining brat. Making Lex older allowed her to be mature enough to have a crush on Sam Neill's character, Dr. Alan Grant, and Tim was young enough to be believable as a wide-eyed dinosaur nut. Both children were infinitely more interesting as a result.
Jurassic Park is not a movie that one would normally conceive of as being potential material for Sam Neill. Sam is considered a serious actor, one who gravitates towards historical movies or movies that make a statement. However, when he was approached to do Jurassic Park there were three main reasons that Sam decided to accept: he wanted to do a film that his children could watch and be proud of, he could hardly turn down a chance to work with Steven Spielberg, and his agent felt that it would be an excellent career move.
No rational human could dispute that appearing in a Steven Spielberg movie should work wonders for an actor's career. However, Sam is not overly anxious to 'boost his career' or at least not in the everyday sense. He relishes his relative anonymity, and so increased recognition value does not have priority with Sam. The primary reason that Sam decided to accept the offer to do Jurassic Park was for his children. Sam noted that he has not 'acted in many films that would be of interest to children', and he wanted to perform in a movie that his own children can enjoy watching and can take pride in -- 'that's the real stardom', he says. His love for his children is more than obvious as he explains:
My own children feel they can take some pride in the work I do, being in a Spielberg movie that everybody in the world's going to see, where they can say, "Hey, that's my dad up there." It's horrible to have a father that you say is an actor but has never been in a film your friends have heard of. It comes as a great relief to my kids that they finally have dinosaurs to talk about.
So when Spielberg offered him the starring role in Jurassic Park, he accepted the offer while, possibly, giving up any chance of going unrecognised ever again.
Although Spielberg had been talking with Sam for some time about appearing in a movie for him, and Sam was among Spielberg's first choices for the role of Alan Grant, so were such well known names as Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, and William Hurt. The fact that Sam was filming the American television mini-series Family Pictures at the time, a project that would overlap the starting date for Jurassic Park, made Spielberg feel that he couldn't wait for Sam. William Hurt turned down the role, and so eventually Spielberg went back to Sam, and ended up moving the start date in order to accommodate Sam's schedule. Sam wound up finishing Family Pictures in Toronto on Thursday and beginning work on Jurassic Park in Hawaii on Monday. As his fans know, Sam is well accustomed to such hectic schedules, zooming from one country, even one continent, to another, week after week.
Sam prepared for the role of Dr. Alan Grant by reading Crichton's novel and by talking to the real-life Dr. Grant, palaeontologist Dr. Jack Horner. One aspect of the novel's Dr. Grant that Spielberg altered was his nationality, or -- more precisely -- his accent: Grant was supposed to be an American. Sam explains this obvious change in the film's Dr. Grant by saying that Spielberg remarked on Sam's natural accent, saying, 'I like the way you speak'. To which Sam laughingly replied, 'I'm happy about that. I like the way I speak, too'. Eventually, Spielberg decided that Sam should just use his own natural accent for the character of Dr. Grant. Sam states that later on during filming Spielberg did ask him to 'just take off the most recognisable Australian influences, a request that Sam remarked 'only served to confuse me altogether, and so I just went on and did what I felt like'.
Sam's second reason for agreeing to do Jurassic Park was the opportunity to work under the direction of Steven Spielberg, whom he considers to be a brilliant director. Sam seems to have only good things to say about Spielberg:
His work speaks for itself. Obviously, he's one of the greatest directors of the day, but on a personal level, on the floor, he's vastly stimulating to work with. What he really enjoys doing is working with actors, above all else; the technical stuff is second nature to him by now -- he hardly needs to think about that. And, he's a funny guy; it was a pleasure to go to work.
Although Sam had to give up some of his closely guarded privacy to star in Spielberg's film, it was at least, evidently, a very pleasant experience.
Spielberg was determined to finish Jurassic Park on time and within budget, and so the principal photography on Jurassic Park began August 24, 1992, following two years of intensive research and preparation. Eighty-two days were allocated for shooting the film, the first three weeks to be done on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, locale for Jurassic Park's Isla Nublar. The cast was there, excited and ready to roll: Sam as Dr. Alan Grant, Laura Dern as paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, Jeff Goldblum as arrogant chaos theory mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, Sir Richard Attenborough as Jurassic Park's billionaire owner John Hammond, and Bob Peck as the Park's main game warden Robert Muldoon. Due to the intensive preparatory work, filming proceeded rapidly and smoothly. The ease with which the shooting progressed was amazing, considering the fact that Mother Nature intervened in Spielberg's carefully laid plans. Hurricane Iniki, which devastated the island, arrived on what was to have been the last day of shooting. By this time, though, Spielberg had all the location shots he needed. The production returned to the mainland, and principal photography was completed on October 24, 1992, twelve days under its allotted schedule.
Sam states that 'spending two days hunkered down as Hurricane Iniki did its best to blow our hotel to pieces' was his most memorable experience from the filming of Jurassic Park. Without a doubt, riding out a hurricane should be memorable, if not completely terrifying. Was Sam terrified? Not especially, he explains:
There were moments when it was probably wise to be a little bit afraid. But on the other hand, the terrible thing about those kind of events is that they're kind of fun. It's not often in our insulated, modern lives that we're actually confronted with something like that.
Although Sam, Laura, Jeff and Richard were the main actors of the movie, the stars were the dinosaurs. Spielberg said:
I love this cast. I could have gone out and hired what they call the 'movie-movie-movie stars', and put all the money on them and just had a tiny dinosaur running around and saved money that way. But I decided to just hire tremendous performers who were talented actors. And I was blessed with my entire cast of Sam, Jeff, Laura, Richard, and Ariana Richards and Joey Mazzello, who were just a blast to work with.
Spielberg was also blessed with the technical talents of Stan Winston and his crew, and the staff of Industrial Light and Magic, who created the live-action creatures and the computer-generated dinos. These technical wizards gave birth to amazingly fully believable dinosaurs, which all those involved, Sam included, readily admit were the stars of Jurassic Park. In response to a reporter's inquiry as to his feelings about being a leading man in a Hollywood film, he quipped, 'It's a surprising state of affairs. Perhaps, though, we'd better take up the 'leading' part with a rather overbearing Tyrannosaurus Rex I know.' Evidently many movie-goers were awe-struck by Grant as well as the dinosaurs, since fan club president Chriss Green commented that membership has risen dramatically since the release of Jurassic Park. One club member stated, only half-facetiously, 'Why do you think it [Jurassic Park] grossed so much? Because people wanted to see dinosaurs? No, I don't think so! All the smart women went to see it ten million times because Sam Neill looked so darn good!'
Sam's wonderful sense of humour was given a test when he did a promotional appearance for Jurassic Park on the Tonight Show in the United States. Jay Leno questioned him about a rumour that was going around about Sam having an affair on the set of Jurassic Park. Looking intently at Sam, Jay asked, 'Laura Dern was here last night, and she said that there was a bit of romantic involvement between you and one of the dinosaurs. You know about the tabloids in America?' Sam looked amazingly guilty, and began attempting to explain his relationship with the dinosaur on the set of Jurassic Park, without even a hint of a smile. 'Just because I got on well with one of the velociraptors and we got together and helped one another with our lines...it's not like we went out to Spago together or anything.' Shaking his head as if he simply could not believe how such rumours about a strictly platonic relationship could be blown into outrageous proportions, Sam sighed. He then looked up at Leno, grinning with one his famous Damien Thorn grins, and said in a conspiratorial tone, 'Wolfgang Puck does look delicious, though, doesn't he?'
The crowd roared with laughter at the thought of the famous rotund Hollywood chef/owner of Spago restaurant being a meal for a voracious raptor and ravenous actor.
After contemplating many of Sam's remarks about what he loved most about Jurassic Park, and combining that with the fact that Death In Brunswick is recommended highly, one has to wonder about his sense of humour. 'The death of the lawyer is one of the funniest things I've ever seen on film,' he laughs. 'Another is when an arm lands on Laura Dern's shoulder and she thinks to her relief it's Sam Jackson, but, of course, the arm is dismembered. It's absolutely a riot! I'm a sucker for it.' Sam's strange, if not altogether sick, sense of humour is shown in several of the antics that he and his co-stars took part in during the filming on Hawaii. Sam, Laura and Jeff all loved working with each other, and they became close during the shooting -- Laura and Jeff became so close that their relationship continued after Jurassic Park finished filming. The trio raised kidding and practical joking to a high art. After the day's filming, Sam and Jeff would return to the hotel while still wearing their makeup and costumes. Sam explains:
We were covered in blood and dirt, and Jeff had one leg all ripped up and in a splint. We developed an immaculate sense of timing. As we approached a big party of tourists from Turkey, for instance, we would start to argue about 100 meters away from the group. The argument would get more physical the closer we got, until I would start kicking him in his bad leg, and cursing him at the same time. This had a miraculous effect on the tourists. They would go white, and clutch each other, then we would pass on as if nothing was wrong.
Laura Dern thought that these antics were 'hilarious! With Jeff's mangled leg! Oh, they were so sick. The tourists were freaking out, because it looked so real.' She describes her relationship with Jeff and Sam as being 'the Three Musketeers. Spending a few days in one room with one toilet and no water and very little food, during a hurricane, gets you very bonded.' When Sam was asked whether he bonded with his fellow actors, he replied, 'There's nothing like going through the eye of a storm to bring people together -- what they might call in California "a bonding experience".' But when he was asked what they would call it 'back home', Sam explained that 'nobody bonds in New Zealand'. Bonding or not, some sort of strong relationship was cemented between the actors, and a love for fun and jokes was definitely one of the ingredients in the cement.
Laura Dern describes her impression of co-star Sam Neill:
I think people perceive him as very serious and respond to him in that way. But actually Sam has the best sense of humour. You know, very dry, and at times so cynical that you think, "is he putting me down?" Then you get the gist of it, and it's hilarious.
Sam describes Laura Dern as a 'funny broad. We have a number of terms of abuse for each other, that one being one of the milder.'
Sam related another favourite practical joke that he, Jeff, and Laura enjoyed pulling on the tourists that were staying at the hotel. 'We would look for Japanese tourists coming up to the hotel as we were leaving, and we would clutch at our stomachs, bend over and look as sick as possible.' Sam laughs and holds out his hand as if warding off the guests, 'And we would shout to them, "Don't eat the sushi! Don't eat the sushi"!'
A typical day of shooting could be imagined with this cast of characters:
The tyrannosaurus rex has just escaped from her enclosure, rampaging in search of more food. The goat could hardly even be considered an appetiser. That lawyer fellow sure looked tasty. During her pursuit of food, the t-rex never noticed that she has trampled on Ian Malcolm. But he noticed. Now his leg is mangled and bleeding, and he prays that the dinosaur will not see him hidden beneath the wreckage strewn about.
Jeff Goldblum is lying on his back on the muddy ground, readying himself for another take.
"Now would be the perfect time", he thinks. Lifting his head, he calls out to the director, "Steven, Steven. I think that lunch may have been bad. I feel like I, I am going to be sick".
Spielberg turns a nice shade of gray. No, not now. We have to get the scene right. Then he notices the grin playing about Jeff's mouth. Damn him! Not another joke!
Even Spielberg wasn't safe from the practical jokes. More than a few times he was panicked by one of the three pretending to be sick and about to vomit on him before they were scheduled to shoot a scene, or by one of them lying on an empty plastic Evian water bottle to produce a crackling sound while complaining of a aching back -- 'Anything', Laura said, 'to make Steven panic'. Steven took it all in stride, proving that having a good sense of humour can be a life-line, especially when one is working in close quarters with the likes of Sam, Jeff and Laura.
Although one would assume that it would be extremely difficult working with technological creations such as the dinosaurs, evidently that was not the case at all. Sam said that
Jurassic Park wasn't like one of those special effects films where actors are working with nothing, because we had these huge dinosaurs lumbering around. It wasn't difficult to be afraid of them.
The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were accredited with having true personalities, and weren't considered by the cast as 'mere mechanical creatures' created by Stan Winston and his Industrial Light and Magic crew. Sam said that the cast 'developed a dialogue with them between shots. We named them all because they seemed to have personalities.' The tyrannosaurus rex, one of the models for which was scaled to be life-size -- 40 feet long and 9,000 pounds, was described by Sam as 'not the kind of guy you'd take home to meet your mother'. All in all, though, Sam felt that the 'dinosaurs are certainly better to work with than some actors I've worked with', and even though he wouldn't name names of either the dinosaurs or the actors, he went on to say that 'they (the dinosaurs) didn't stay sulking in their trailers. In between takes they're rather passive'. For all his joking about the dinosaurs, there was some rumours flying around that the actors were miffed at being upstaged by the dinosaurs. This was pure invention on the part of Hollywood gossip mongers, as all the actors knew beforehand that a starring role in Jurassic Park would, in all likelihood, not net them an Oscar nomination. 'We all know who the real stars are', Sam noted, speaking of the dinosaurs. He then expanded on the thought, saying that 'if I had to make a choice between actors and the dinosaurs, I would probably choose the actors'. Sam's impish humour comes to the forefront again as he continues, 'That's not to say that the actors and the dinosaurs didn't get along. We did.'
Another perk of being part of the highest-grossing film of all time is the fact that Sam is able to see himself pictured on towels, T-shirts, lunch boxes, socks, sleeping bags, underwear and, of course, action figures; although the replica is not all that similar to the real thing: 'My action figure has somewhat of a finely chiselled jaw', Sam comments on the dissimilarities between the "real" Dr. Grant and the plastic one. The fact that Jurassic Park was pictured everywhere evidently caused a few problems at home at times: 'My daughter thought that I worked in a place called "Jurassic Park." They were disappointed when they came to work and there were no dinosaurs.'
While making Jurassic Park was the job of a lifetime, it was not the be-all and end-all of Sam's career. His next film could not have been any more different than Jurassic Park; it was not designed to be a special-effects blockbuster, but Sam was delighted to have been asked to be a part of Jane Campion's the Piano.
Back to Sam Neill's Biography Page