Twenty Years Later, ‘Steel’ Director Admits Shaq Was Probably a Bad Choice
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Twenty Years Later, ‘Steel’ Director Admits Shaq Was Probably a Bad Choice

“Maybe I should've just walked away when I couldn’t get the cast that I wanted,” director Kenneth Johnson tells VICE.

In Pop Culture Apologies, staff writer Noel Ransome talks to the artists behind massive failures and asks if they are sorry.

Looking back on the 1990s, Shaquille O'Neal seemed to move like a villain on the downlow. I'd watch him up his personality, crack a few jokes in front of a press that adored him and I'd take the bait and eat up the very worst kind of movie trash. It was Shaq; bigger than life, larger than any athlete I'd ever seen, a spectacle. But each time I'd leave a theatre, it was shellshock—haunted by the one-liners like, "I am… Kazaam!" that followed him throughout his career. My distrust in athletes-turned-rappers-turned-actors solidified. It was a minor trend in the mid-90s. You had Michael Jordan fronting Space Jam and Ray Allen in He's Got Game. But no NBA player loomed larger than Shaq—whose gigantic size and personality was put to use in Blue Chips, Kazaam and of course, Steel.


It was the fall of 1997 when I saw that horror story. The minds behind the classic Batman & Robin felt emboldened enough to create a live adaptation of a comic book called Steel (John Henry Irons), a superman sidestory that no really cared about. You had a huge man in a metallic suit played by Shaq who creates futuristic weapons that fall into the wrong hands; and like some kind of (literal) super black man of steel, he ventures to get them back, fighting dumb bad guys along the way.

I always resented this movie, mostly because by default, as it was given permission to be a pioneer for black superheroes on film while having the nerve to be trash. It's not like you can overlook it historically considering the pathetic number of black stars that get the chance to headline a superhero movie to this day; despite a comic book renaissance. The Blade series featuring Wesley Snipes comes to mind along with the upcoming Black Panther, but beyond that, it's slim pickings.

Figuring out why such an obscure comic book hero deserved a movie of this magnitude was my mission. So I of course tracked down the man I thought responsible, Kenneth Johnson (writer, director). My hope was to steal another apology or explanation. Instead I got a man somewhat satisfied in his "nice" movie, while still pointing the finger at forces that kept his film from becoming successful. (It made $1.7-million on a $16-million budget.)


Kenneth Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal on the set of Steel.

VICE: A lot of the more notable parts of your career began with some great television credits. The Incredible Hulk (1978) and V being huge examples. Then you end up writing and directing this movie, with a basketball player as its star. How did this happen?
Kenneth Johnson: The whole thing was a very frustrating situation. To begin, it was brought to me by Joel Simon (producer) and Quincey Jones. I'd danced with Joel several times on a number of different projects. Joel got involved with Quincy and they gave me a call in early 96. It was about this comic book offshoot of the Superman series from DC Comics and Warner Bros. They wanted to know if I wanted to write and direct the film. I was never a huge comic book fan, but the concept of a black guy from the army, creating dangerous weapons, and discovering that his creations ended up hurting a community appealed to me. It also sparked my interest because it was obviously one of the first black superheroes. Just some real guy with a suit on.

So I go, who's gonna star? And they say, "well we got Shaquille O'Neal attached to play the lead." And I said, that's nice, who's gonna star? And they tell me, "well we think Shaq can do this as its star," and I said, no…no he can't. There's a reason why they put Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin with George Clooney. It's because they knew George at the time couldn't open a movie. He barely opened that one as much as I love him. Instead [does Arnold impression] they needed Mr. Freeze to come out with the popularity. Get out of the way Batman.


You never liked Shaq as the lead from the start?
Not really. I said guys, if you're gonna put Shaq in the lead, then you've got to at least have a major movie star next to them. Or at the very least, a few in some supporting roles so that the picture can open well. They go, "oh let's just keep going with it and we'll talk about that with Lorenzo di Bonaventura (former president at Warner Bros.) and Bill Gerber (joint Warner Bros. president), who I never met during the whole process until the last week. I mean Shaq is a nice guy but he had done two movies, neither of which made any money or noise. He's not an actor. Yes, he was a big persona and a great role model for kids and all that, but he's no movie star. But these people just wouldn't budge a dime to place an actual movie star in the role.

So all these doubts and you still stuck with it?
A couple of times I was actually ready to walk away. But they seemed so convinced that this could work. All of their marketing research had indicated that this was a great idea and I'm thinking, it's Warner Bros., they've done a few things. They should know what they're doing and I see the faith they have in this. Maybe they're seeing something that I'm not, so let's see what I can put together. Then they tell me, they don't need it to be good, they just need it Thursday of that week. When I tell you, it was quick. It was quick. This was when Shaq was on the Olympic basketball team, around the time when he was picked up by the Lakers. So they needed a script and a story in a hurry.


Speaking of hurry. Anyone looking back on the movie can tell it may have been rushed as you indicated. Not only that, it didn't really match the subject material at all. Expand on that choice.
They needed a script in a hurry. When I took a look at the source material I said, guys, have you read this comic book? This is no PG-13 movie we're talking about here, this is some R-rated material. The comic itself was filled with these weapons that were blowing blood and brains on the wall. It was horrifying. I told them I couldn't do it like this. I'm not into that sort of ugly, ultra violent stuff. So they said, "no, no no, it has to be PG-13. Just do take it and do whatever with it. Create weapons that don't make them splatter or something." I go OK. So I create two kinds of weapons, this sonic cannon thing that could send a wave of sound that can blow a car over. And the other that fired blurts of electricity. The general direction was limited by the fact that I wasn't into gore and it was also the 90s. I even walked away from Robocop years ago because I thought it was ugly and mean spirited. It had no innate humanism going on in it. I would of taken a pass at the script to put some humanity in it but they passed.

Did that apply to the suit as well? Because honestly, it's still ranked as one of the worst designed superhero costumes ever made. Nothing like the comic book.
Honestly, that came down to the fact that we were never given much time. I was working with Greg Cannom who is a real gerue in terms of putting these sorts of things together. I mean a steel outfit is a steel outfit. It was a poor man's ironman. I admit this. And it was supposed to look like it was handmade.


I really wanted that feeling throughout and it naturally came off as a low rent kind of situation. He was doing the best he could under those terms. The biggest problem came from the helmet. They kept sending sketches for prototypes and all of them looked angry. I wanted something to look more heroic. Something that reflected the character of the person who was inside. We just wanted logical, not a suit that was terribly snappy or cool. It had to be functional.

And what of the questionable special effects?
That was all time and budget. In one scene, a bad guy breaks into a bank and the climb out of their humvee. A police car pulls up in front of them with Shaq on board and a young black female cop. What she doesn't know is that one of those sonic cannons is set to fire at her. I story boarded it as the humvee flying over and upside down. Lands on the other side of the street. I figured these guys were good, they worked on the Jurassic Park series.

We do the first take and the car only goes up a foot thanks to mortars underneath its base. That's not what I wanted. Apparently one of the mortars blew out a piece of shrapnel the size of a hand, out from under the car and across the street, crashed into the window of a bank and set off all the alarms. They only had two mortars so they put some cables on it and did this jerry rig job. It was hysterical. I use it to show my students on how to not do things. After that fails, we get another car for the next day. New permits and all that. We do the prep, set off the explosion and the car goes 30 feet and straight down. No roll. Turns into spaghetti. The police officer would be dead with that take. There were a lot of nights like this. Nights where I'd take a deep breath and say holy shit. Another damn day lost of filming with this tiny budget.


Wow. Well going so going back to Shaq. You knew he couldn't really act despite being a great guy. We all got that impression from Kazaam and Blue Chips . How did you work with him knowing that?
Well when I met Shaq, I already knew that he was a very nice guy, but obviously, not an actor and he never pretended to be. He never put on airs. If anything, he was sorta shy and nervous about the whole thing. Keep in mind. I'm not a big sports guy. When people mention football, I always have to ask if it's the one with the pointy ball. What I appreciated was that Shaq was game to do the best he could but another problem arose. He was going to the Olympics and then we were going to start shooting immediately when he got back. So I hired an acting teacher of mine to go along with him, grab him in-between games and give him some dialog coaching. I didn't want him coming cold on set.

Meanwhile, I'm here fighting a battle with Warner Bros. trying to get some heavy weights into the supporting cast and they wouldn't step up. I even went to Quincy Jones. I mean he's a nice guy but I only saw him at the first meeting and then the next time I saw him, he just dropped by the set one day after that and once more when the picture was completed. That was the sum total of Quincy Jones's involvement with the on-going project. I was on my own and was just frustrated with these guys who wouldn't put two or three million more to at least bring in some kind of star.


Shaquille O'Neal as Kazaam. (1996)

But you knew that a headline actor could damage a film without the proper skills. Despite that, as a director, most of the bad decisions would fall under your name. This possibility bother you?
There are a lot of stars that can't act. A lot of great stars that couldn't act well. Steve McQueen would be the first to tell you that he wasn't much of an actor, but he knew what he could do within his range. I already recognized that Shaq was limited, but he was game to try anything, even when I said, "OK try this," he'd go for it. My friend who was his acting coach was a godsend in at least helping him with some of the delivery and how to present himself as an actor. Shaq would sometimes pick up an item, toss it around and I'd push him to use it in a scene. Whenever someone asked him about it, he'd give me the credit. That's the kind of guy Shaq was. He couldn't take credit for anything. That made it easier to work with him.

But of course we get back to the fact that he was no actor. It was print and pick up (cuts), for pretty much every other line in order to get it right, because he normally couldn't get through a whole scene. Bless his heart, he just wasn't really trained for it.

So we've talked about him as an actor, but elaborate on him as a person you worked with.
Shaq was just cool. The difficulties were always there. Like when you're filming at night and everything slows down on a normal day, you get about 60 percent of what you'd normally get when you're filming at night. So here I am writing a movie that takes place largely at night, with a black man wearing a black outfit. [laughs] It just put me in a lot of situations where I was like how the hell do I do this? We were always struggling but I remember a moment when my first assistant director brought her daughter to be an extra. She was seven with a toy gecko, and he introduced himself and said "Hi, you like geckos huh? Do you have any real ones?" She goes yes and no. Not an hour later, she's leading her mom to Shaq's trailer where there's this terrarium with two real geckos, a ribbon and a little note with her name on it. After that, members of the crew were mentioning their toy Ferraris to Shaq.


He was just a respectable guy, even to the point of confusing me. I'd talk to him and he'd be looking over my head, and wouldn't' look me in the eye. It was beginning to annoy me so I said, "Shaq, what's the problem? I'm down here." He took me aside and said "You know Kenny, I was raised by a drill sergeant, and I learned that you never look a sergeant directly in the eyes because he'll take it as an affront and slug you." I had to tell him, I'll never slug you. Especially someone like him.

OK. So once the film is done, you run this by Warner Bros. What's the reaction?
They were really…really…happy with it. I personally thought…it was nice…it's OK. It holds together I guess and the performances are pretty good. My leading lady wasn't as strong as I wanted her to be. And Judd Nelson is no Mr. Freeze that's for sure. But he hit all the marks even if he wasn't a star at the time. It was all frustrating from my perspective. But the movie came out pretty well as a movie. The musical score, despite a lot of handholding, managed to come together strong and had the flavour and feeling that I wanted.

Wait. So just so I'm clear, you're saying you showed this to Warner Bros., had your test screenings and people were happy with this?
Not everyone. They of course previewed to about 60-65 cities and got great numbers. But they made the mistake of initially trying to pitch the movie to a teenage audience and I said that it was a mistake. We had one guy trying to pitch it to teenage audiences and I said, we can't do that. I said that the problem was that this wasn't the audience. Teenagers are too hip for this kind of movie. It was meant to be aimed at a family audience. Kids from eight years old to their parents. That's who you should put this movie in front of. Thanks to that move, our later previews turned out great numbers and audiences loved it. But let's be real, they got to see it for free. Who's gonna pay money to actually go to see it.


I saw it coming and it was frustrating because the Warner Bros. marketing department opened a big movie with Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson called Conspiracy Theory and this was in the same year. We're talking peak Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts in terms of popularity. They were expecting a 40 to 50 million dollar opening and the picture didn't even make $20 million. It was a flop. So I'm standing there, and when I heard that, heard the numbers come in, I said holy shit, they got Mel Gibson and Julia damn Roberts and I got a basketball player. If they can't open with those two, forget this. It's not happening, and sure enough, that's what happened. The head of the marketing department at Warner Bros. and many of his colleagues ended up getting fired immediately after this movie. One of the two co-presidents at Warner Bros., Bill Gerber was also fired [in 1998].

Damn, that's a lot of collateral damage.
Yeah. I took Bill to breakfast shortly after and asked him, what in the world he was thinking not giving me what I needed. He said, "I gotta be honest, up until the last minute, we were thinking about listening to you, about pulling Shaq out and putting in a Wesley Snipes or a Denzel Washington, someone with some clout," and I said, 'and you didn't because?…' and he goes: "Well, we were convinced that we would sell more toys with Shaq's name compared to a Wesley," and I of course told him that he wouldn't sell a toy if the movie didn't even open, what the hell was he thinking? He simply told me that they were just wrong. I of course told him that they sure were and thanks a lot. It was a very frustrating situation, because we had to make this picture under budget on a ridiculous schedule and few people enjoyed it or went to see it. It was a drag.

Well you've given some valid outside reasons why this movie didn't do well, do you have any regrets in terms of the decisions you personally made?
Well did I know it could've been better if I had a cast that was stronger? Better in terms of the box office, the script? Absolutely. In terms of the story and what it had to say, and the heroism of the lead character along with a woman… I mean I sat in front of some of those preview screenings and I saw the reactions they gave. They love it. But when it came to the reality, when it came for them to pay for it? It was a different story.

So you actually sound like you're satisfied with what you did. You weren't at all surprised by all the bad reviews it has gotten to this day?
To be honest, I never saw that much critical reaction and maybe that's why. They didn't put the movie out to be reviewed initially which I think was a mistake and part of the reason why it hit us so hard. Because a number of critics didn't have an opportunity to at least say, OK, this is probably a decent film for a family audience. I found over the years to that it's never too important to look at the best criticisms or the worst criticisms because everyone is always going to have their own take. If it doesn't get reviewed well, life goes on and you move onto the next thing.

So what about the folks that may have been disappointed by this film, especially given its comic book roots? Any responsibility?

I'll say this. Except for the Incredible Hulk and Steel, I have purposely avoided several other opportunities to translate stories that originated in a comic book world. I tried my best to capture the original material and make it work logically that would of hopefully include fans of the comic and also legions of others who never heard of the comic. Sometimes that can happen with the right casting but that wasn't the case with Steel. Warner Bros. didn't provide the casting support, something they deeply regretted, and the movie didn't attract the audience it deserved. Yeah. Maybe I should've just walked away when I couldn't get the cast that I wanted. If I made a mistake, that was the only mistake I made in terms of putting it together.

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