Howdy all you Supercultists out there on the interwebz! I’m Bad Movie Professor Cameron Coker (BS in “Movies based on Books” with a minor in “Confederate Ironclads in the African Desert”) and I’ll be posting my hype-tacular speeches every week along with some long lost speeches from past Supercult Shows!
This week Supercult watches Sahara, then crashes a plane just so he can land surf the wreckage around the desert!
Master explorer and former US Navy Seal Dirk Pitt likes to live life one adventure at a time, but when he discovers a clue to a lost Civil War battleship, known as the “Ship of Death”, Dirk may have a little too much adventure to handle alone. Joined by his wisecracking buddy Al Giordino and World Health Organization doctor, Eva Rojas, Dirk must evade a ruthless dictator, survive the deserts of West Africa, and prevent a global catastrophe, all while searching for that big ‘X’ on the treasure map! Adventure has a new destination in Sahara!
Released in 2005 and starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penélope Cruz, William H. Macy, Rainn Wilson, and Lennie James, Sahara is one of those movies that was so big that it couldn’t fail…until it did. But let’s take a step back in history to see where Sahara got its start.
The original concept for the film actually comes from the novel by the same name by Clive Cussler, an American adventure novelist and underwater explorer who’s novels have reached The New York Times fiction best-seller list more than 20 times. His series featuring the adventurer Dirk Pitt (the most priceless pulp name in existence, by the way) are particularly successful, but he wasn’t noticed by the film industry until his Dirk Pitt novel, “Raise the Titanic was bought for $840,000 by a wealthy outsider in 1976. Four years later the film, Raise the Titanic, flopped at the box-office making just $14 million on a $36 million budget. There’s much to be said about Raise the Titanic, but we’ll leave that for another speech.
After the failure of Raise the Titanic, Cussler had refused to sell the rights to any more of his books, until he was approached by yet another wealthy outsider, Philip Anschutz, a Denver billionaire who made his fortune in the oil and gas business. Cussler, remembering his earlier experience, managed to get Anshutz to pay a whopping $10 million for the rights to his 1992 novel, Sahara. On top of that, he wrangled final approval of the script, cast, and director – an incredibly unusual provision for the author of a novel being adapted into a film.
Cussler wasted now time asserting his creative authority. Ten screenwriters including David S. Ward, writer for The Sting and Sleepless in Seattle, were paid nearly $4 million to help develop the movie, but Cussler apparently wrote his own script and clashed bitterly with every professional screenwriter brought on board for polishing or reworking. Cussler allegedly used racist and anti-Semitic slurs during arguments and derided many of the other writers as hacks. One draft of the film that the studio and producers liked met with the approval of renowned TV director Rob Bowman, who had agreed to direct. However, when the producers told Bowman that Cussler disliked the approved version because it cut some of his favorite scenes Bowman realized the extent of Cussler’s authority and quit the project.
The approved director ended up being Breck Eisner, son of former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Breck Eisner up to this point had only worked in TV and small-scale productions and had never directed a big budget feature film before.
After three years of production delays, Sahara finally got rolling, but the production itself was elaborate to say the least. Shooting took place across the world in London, Spain, and Morocco among others. An actual full-scale model of the fictional ironclad CSS Texas was built for the film, shot for the prologue, then dismantled and reassembled in Morocco for the rest of the film. A plane crash scene that cost $2 million to film ultimately had to be cut so that contracts with advertisers who had paid millions to have their products featured on screen could be honored.
To promote the film, Matthew McConaughey painted his own Airstream trailer with a large Sahara movie poster on each side and hauled it with his own Ford pickup across America, stopping at military bases and sporting events to premier the movie to fans, sign autographs, and do interviews. According to McConaughey, the film was intended to be the first in a new Dirk Pitt franchise based on the long running novel series.
Sahara has a 6.0 on IMDB, a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes but despite poor reviews, Sahara opened at number one in the US box office, generating a total of $119 million in gross box-office sales. However, over the course of production the budget ballooned to twice its original size to a total of roughly 281.2 million and as a result the film was a massive flop.
Clive Cussler meanwhile had blasted the film on his latest book tour and filed suit before the film had even released alleging that Philip Anschutz and the other producers had never intended to honor their promise to give him creative control and had deceived him all along. He asserted that his creative control over the adaptation was compromised and this contributed to it becoming a box office failure, saying, “They deceived me right from the beginning. They kept lying to me… and I just got fed up with it.” The producers in turn countersued, alleging that he had promised to sabotage the film if they didn’t use his script and that Cussler’s behavior played a big role in the film’s financial woes. Anschutz’s lawyer said, “It is the height of arrogance for Cussler to take $10 million to make a movie and then torpedo the franchise.”
During the legal battle, the film’s full, 151-page line-item budget, was entered as evidence and was leaked to the LA Times. This incredibly rare look into the detailed finances of a film showed numerous hefty expenditures such as the entourages of the principal actors (Penélope Cruz’s hairstylist and dialect coach cost over $0.25 million by themselves) but also revealed that the production benefitted from cheap Moroccan Labor and European tax cuts. More importantly, it even included expenses for what were explicitly labeled as bribes to Moroccan officials, some of which may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
In the end Cussler lost the case but the damage had been done. Many theatres decided against booking the film because of the questionable reputation, which drove Sahara further into the red.
Sahara was a film riddled with production woes from start to finish that is still remembered for its controversy…
Oh, wait, did you listen to all that and think that that I meant that the movie was bad? Nah, man Sahara is amazing, don’t let the ass-hat of a writer, the inexperienced director, or the corrupt producers fool you. Roger Ebert gave Sahara 3 out of 4 stars calling it “a fire sale at the action movie discount outlet” and “a laundry line for absurd but entertaining action sequences.” It’s an action movie that refuses to be boring. Over the top, offensive, un-funny, laughable, unbelievable, overly complex, vapid, and potentially criminal, sure, but never, not for one single frame, is it boring!
Adventure has a new destination. It’s right here at Supercult!
The Supercult show is proud to present, Sahara!