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Ever Do Anything Normal? – The Making of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

A family adventure from the makers of Re-Animator? That’s ostensibly what Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was when it first surfaced in 1989, the latest live-action fantasy from the Walt Disney Company. Another tale of a mad scientist causing havoc on those around him, the movie starred comic actor Rick Moranis as a fledging inventor who creates a machine that is able to resize matter, resulting in both his own children and his neighbours’ shrinking to a quarter of an inch and becoming lost in their back yard. One of the last special effects-oriented family blockbusters before Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park ushered in the age of CGI, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids struggled through a difficult production but was met with considerable acclaim and success at the box office.

Released in 1985 amid a slew of similar zombie pictures, Re-Animator was a low budget adaptation of a series of short stories from legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft that raised the bar on excessive blood-letting and nudity, blending outrageous horror with a unique brand of dark humour. Marking the filmmaking debut of former theatre director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna, the movie became an unexpected critical success, with Roger Ebert declaring that viewers ‘have been assaulted by a lurid imagination, amazed by unspeakable sights, blind-sided by the movie’s curiously dry sense of humour. I guess that’s our money’s worth.’ Released through Charles Band’s then-lucrative independent studio Empire, the film introduced horror audiences to a new anti-hero, Herbert West, an ambitious and mentally-unbalanced medical student obsessed with discovering the cure for death. Following its unexpected acclaim, Gordon and Yuzna reunited to adapt a second Lovecraft story, From Beyond, along with their own tale of horror, Dolls. It would be the latter that would introduce them to a writer by the name of Ed Naha.

An alumnus of horror magazine Fangoria, Naha had first made the acquaintance of Gordon and Yuzna through their association with Band, Naha having written Empire’s 1986 creature feature Troll for FX artist-turned-director John Carl Buechler. Band would often pitch concepts to writers as a poster and basic premise and following the completion of Troll he showed Naha artwork for an idea called The Doll. Gordon and Yuzna adapted Naha’s screenplay into a cheap horror called Dolls, one of many Band productions that would focus on dolls and puppets that would come to life and cause havoc. Following the completion of both Dolls and From Beyond, Gordon and Yuzna had created three horror pictures and earned a reputation in the genre through their no-holds-barred approach to sex, violence and comedy, but Yuzna wanted to create a story that his young children would enjoy and so they began to brainstorm ideas until they came upon the concept of kids being shrunk and the unimaginable terror that they would face.

While Re-Animator would owe a debt to the zombie film, their latest concept would borrow heavily from the 1950s B-movie, specifically The Incredible Shrinking Man. Directed by sci-fi master Jack Arnold from a script by legendary author Richard Matheson, the movie tells of an everyday-man who, after being exposed to a bizarre mist, slowly begins to shrink, eventually becoming lost in his basement, where he struggles to survive in this new world and ultimately fights a spider for supremacy. Bringing the basic outline to Naha, the writer began to craft a story together using various set pieces that would utilise the imaginative concept and soon Teenie Weenies began to take shape. ‘When I was a kid on the East Coast, there was a comic strip in the Sunday edition of The New York Daily News called the Teenie Weenies,’ explains Naha. ‘It was one huge frame showing little people riding around on mice or sitting in thimbles and I just loved that. There was also a little guy or girl that you could cut out of the newspaper and paste on cardboard to play with. So, in a way, I was prepared for this sort of thing ever since I could hold a newspaper in my chubby little hands.’

Teenie Weenies would utilise one of the most common devices of science fiction: the mad scientist. From the eponymous protagonists of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the various tales of H.G. Wells, crazed inventors have long since been a staple of the genre, their crimes against science often being the catalyst for the horrors that would follow. This would continue through the 1980s, from the family fun of Back to the Future to the graphic horror of The Fly, the lengths that a scientist will go in order to bring their visions to life have continued to fascinate and repulse audiences for centuries. In Teenie Weenies, the man in question was Wayne Szalinski, whose projects and obsessions often make him the joke of his peers, yet his latest opus, the electro-magnetic shrinking machine, promises to revolutionise every aspect of modern life. But if only he could get it to work.

Rick Moranis

Rick Moranis

Despite his desperation to prove himself to everyone around him, Szalinski is looked upon with animosity by his alpha male neighbour Big Russ Thompson, while his own wife feels frustrated that he is more focused on his crazy ideas than he is on a respectable career. But when an accident results in both of the Szalinski children being shrunk alongside Thompson’s two sons, the scientist must use every resource at his disposal to locate the kids amongst the jungle of their back yard, where they face scorpions, bees and even a friendly ant. ‘If you look at the Disney movies of the ’60s and ’70s, ‘mad’ scientists were pretty family-friendly,’ insists Naha. ‘You had The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber with adult scientists. You had The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle with younger science whizzes. No matter what the age of the scientist, if you give him the sense of wonder and glee and spontaneity of a kid, you’re gold. They weren’t so much ‘mad’ as they were ‘animated.’’

The story of Teenie Weenies had attracted the attention of Disney, whose past success in family friendly hijinks would prove to be the perfect home to such an audacious and mischievous project. But as the concept began to develop the studio took a more hands-on approach, slowly forcing out Gordon and Yuzna in favour of more respected artists who, having no association with the likes of Re-Animator, had a repertoire more akin to the likes of Disney. The director chosen to helm the production would be Joe Johnston, a special effects artist known for his work as art director for Industrial Light and Magic on Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Howard the Duck, but Teenie Weenies would mark his first time as a filmmaker. Yet despite his experience behind the scenes, history had proven that a knowledge of staging FX gags did not necessarily make for a good director, as Buechler’s slasher sequel Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and Pumpkinhead, the filmmaking debut of the legendary Stan Winston, had shown. The production would require numerous elaborate set pieces, yet directing also demanded a certain chemistry with the performers and the ability to oversee the function of an entire set.

The more anticipation grew for Teenie Weenies the more the creators found they were being pushed aside. Gordon, Naha and Yuzna would receive story credit, while the latter would remain onboard in a production capacity, while Gordon turned his attention to the post-Transformers sci-fi flick Robot Jox for Empire. ‘The original idea on Robot Jox was that it was a family film,’ claimed Gordon in an interview with author Dennis Fischer for his book Science Fiction Film Directors, 1895-1998. ‘It was intended to be a little departure from the other films and in a way it was the beginning of what became Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the idea of using science fiction as a way of making a family film in the science fiction vein.’ With Johnston onboard, Naha found that more executives were giving their input on the creative process and so ideas began to contradict, original concepts were jettisoned in favour of new ones and scenes were being completely rewritten.

One of the most notorious of these instances was in the death of the ant which, with the children reduced to a similar size, had become their protector while they were struggling to find their way home. ‘I was adamantly opposed to having Anty die. At a certain point during the creative process, the whole experience tanked,’ admits Naha. ‘After two solid years of development, we got a green light on the script. Then Stuart got sick, Brian was nudged out of the way and a new producer and director were air-dropped in.’ Even Naha wasn’t safe, with Dead Poets Society scribe Tom Schulman hired to rework the screenplay. ‘I actually never worked with Tom,’ continues Naha. ‘I’d done countless drafts of the screenplay over two years. Each time I did another pass, the studio would have to add an amendment to my contract. My final contract was about the size of the Gutenberg Bible. After going head-to-head about Anty’s fate and a couple of other ideas I loathed, the studio asked if I’d do another script. I signed a three-script deal and went off, happy as a clam, figuring all was well on the Teenie Weenie front.’

With such an eclectic collection of characters, the casting process for Teenie Weenies would one of the most important aspects of pre-production, particularly the role of Wayne Szalinski. While Jeffrey Combs had brought Herbert West to the screen with such delicious relish, Disney would need someone more recognisable from family entertainment and so the part eventually went to Rick Moranis. Following his breakthrough performance in 1984’s Ghostbusters as the eccentric Louis Tully, Moranis had starred in the musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors and the Star Wars spoof Spaceballs, in which he played the Darth Vader-esque Dark Helmet. ‘Casting was exhausting,’ declared Penney Finkelman Cox, who would replace Yuzna as the producer. ‘One element was appearance – the kids had to look as though they could be siblings; they also had to resemble the actors who were playing their parents. Amy O’Neill and Robert Oliveri look like they could be Rick Moranis.’

Robert Oliveri, Joe Johnston, Thomas Brown and Amy O'Neill

Robert Oliveri, Joe Johnston, Thomas Brown and Amy ONeill

While not exactly the antagonist, Big Russ Thompson would provide Szalinski with the most confrontation, particularly upon discovering the fate of his children. In this significant role was Matt Brewer who, following acclaim on the stage, was cast as the computerised pop culture icon Max Headroom in the mid-1980s. The remainder of the cast would include Moranis’ long-suffering wife Marcia Strassman, a veteran of such TV shows as M*A*S*H and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and theatre actress Kristine Sutherland as Thompson’s spouse. The children, ostensibly the stars of the story, included Jared Rushton, fresh from his co-starring role alongside Tom Hanks in the blockbuster Big, Amy O’Neill, who had previously enjoyed a recurring role in the soap opera The Young and the Restless, Thomas Brown and ten-year-old Robert Oliveri, fresh from an appearance on the small-screen spinoff of Friday the 13th.

Despite having a script in development with Disney that looked set to be a big budget event movie, Naha confesses that he was a little disappointed that both Gordon and Yuzna, who would make his directorial debut in 1989 with the body horror satire Society, did not remain onboard in creative capacities. ‘I am blissfully unaware of the dancing that went on after Stuart and Brian left. Again, this was my first experience at a major studio and I was incredibly naïve. I was thrilled to be at Disney because, well, it was Disney. I grew up with Disney. I’m sure that what went on didn’t exactly resemble ‘the happiest place on Earth.’ I was really disappointed when Stuart left. Stuart is brilliant. His background is live theatre and so he brings a lot to a sound stage in terms of connecting with actors and getting amazing performances. He also knows how to work with a cinematographer to get the most on the screen. I thought the cast was great. They really were ideal. In terms of the overall feel of the movie, I think Stuart would have kept a lot more heart in it.’

Naha wouldn’t be the only horror veteran to participate in the making of Teenie Weenies. With the story set in the microscopic world of the back yard it was imperative that elaborate sets were built that not only reproduced the garden itself but also other set pieces such as a giant discarded piece of lego. For the task of bringing this landscape to life was Gregg Fonseca, whose prior work had included Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street, a production which required, during one sequence, a rotating set. Another important contributor to the production was executive producer Thomas G. Smith who, like Johnston, was a graduate of Industrial Light and Magic and had worked alongside Spielberg on both Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Much like with The Incredible Shrinking Man, the script for Teenie Weenies would make the most out of its unique environment, allowing its protagonists to battle large insects, survive natural disasters and utilise household objects for survival.

Production commenced in September 1987 at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, a location chosen out of necessity due to the demands of numerous elaborate sets and structures. The studio had previously been home to a variety of impressive productions, from David Lynch’s visually striking yet underwhelming adaptation of Dune to the long-gestating Philip K. Dick adaptation Total Recall. Both projects, incidentally, had been in development for over a decade and had seen the involvement of both notorious producer Dino De Laurentiis and Dan O’Bannon. But it would not only be the yard that was replicated in Mexico City but also the neighbourhood in which the Szalinskis and Thompsons both reside.

Due to the production being based in Mexico, far from the familiar surroundings of Hollywood, the language barrier would sometimes become an issue. ‘It was exciting to shoot in Mexico City,’ stated Moranis, who would go on to play the role of Wane Szalinski in the two subsequent sequels. ‘Even more interesting was the idea of filming a comedy on a set where half the crew didn’t speak English. I learned a lot. I’d be rehearsing these scenes and everybody would think i was really being hilarious, then I’d look over at the Mexican crew and they would have this deadpan expression on their faces. They didn’t understand a word, but when we were doing physical comedy, they laughed right along with everyone else.’

Thomas Brown, Robert Oliveri, Amy O'Neill and Jared Rushton

Thomas Brown, Robert Oliveri, Amy O’Neill and Jared Rushton

The script for Teenie Weenies would require several ambitious sequences that would push the talents of the crew to near breaking point, with the producers having to import dirt from California after exhausting the supply at the studio. Arguably the film’s greatest achievement would be in the creation of the ant that would prove to be the hero of the story after sacrificing its own life to save the children from a deadly scorpion. ‘We wanted the audiences to think of the ant as they would a character, so we designed its antennae to move in certain ways that communicate its feelings and emotions,’ says Peter Anthony Zamora, one of eight model makers who would make up the miniatures crew. The creation of the ant would be a collaboration between a large model that would be operated by twelve technicians during shooting and a stop-motion version designed by David Allen, the man also responsible for bringing the creatures to life in Charles Band’s Puppet Master.

Once the children had survived the challenges of the yard, they then had to overcome numerous obstacles in their own home, including almost drowning in a large bowl of Cheerios. To accomplish this scene, Johnston required sixteen thousand gallons of milk to be created from water and foot thickener to be poured into the giant bowl that the young actors were then forced to act inside of. This is where Johnston’s background ins special effects would prove useful, as he would be able to convey his vision to the crew and even assist in their creation. ‘My job was to remind the young actors that as far as their characters were concerned, the backyard was four miles long and at any moment they could be eaten by a bumble bee; I reinforced the fantasy.’

Even during production the executives at Disney were constantly making amendments to every aspect of the project, from the technical side to the script. As promotion on Teenie Weenies began the studio decided the picture needed a more commercial name and so rebranded the screenplay as Grounded, but due to its lack of commercial appeal the producers finally settled on the more memorable Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. ‘I have no idea who came up with the finished title,’ confesses Naha, who had no involvement with the new moniker. ‘For a while it was called Grounded. The studio sent out these magnifying glasses with the word Grounded etched into the handle. All the members of the press got them. I was also a member of the press, at the time, having a column for The New York Post, so I got one as well. I thought, ‘Great, this title will appeal to electricians.’ Whoever came up with the final title deserves a medal.’

Johnston would continue to direct special effects pictures throughout his career with Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and Captain America: The First Avenger all utilising his past experience with Industrial Light and Magic. For the director, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids followed a long tradition of not only Disney flicks but also B-movies that revelled in both science and fantasy. ‘Those of us who grew up in the ’50s remember a special kind of Walt Disney film, wonderful excursions that spoke to the adventurous spirit, regardless of age. They were body stated films, not afraid to push the envelope of wonder and credibility, yet they had a certain kind of from-the-heart honesty. Through all the unusual perils of moviemaking, the challenge of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was to capture that same kind of Disney electricity that makes an audience willingly lose itself in an impossible world.’

While some aspects of the experience may have left a bad taste in his mouth Naha, who would subsequently work on the TV series adapted from his script, looks back fondly on the end result. ‘I can’t speak for Stuart or Brian but I thought the movie was solid. It was about eighty per cent there in terms of heart and emotion. There were some things that irritated the hell out of me. For instance, the ‘bookend’ scenes in the movie concerned a Thanksgiving fishing trip. I mean, when I think of Thanksgiving, I think, ‘Screw the turkey! Let’s go fishing!’ Doesn’t everyone? Most of that was edited out of the finished film. The movie wound up being Disney’s biggest live action release up until that time, which was kind of amusing. It opened on a Friday in June, opposite Batman and for the two weeks prior to its release there were a flurry of news articles in the Los Angeles papers about how the studio was disappointed in the movie. Allegedly, that’s why they added the Roger Rabbit cartoon to the release. It was all gossipy stuff. The studio was pretty tight-lipped to reporters about the whole release. They did, however, get into it with one or two writers about calling it a ‘family film.’ The studio didn’t want it referred to as a ‘family film.’ I guess that was uncool.’

Honey, I Blew Up the Kid

Honey, I Blew Up the Kid

With sequels always promising bigger, 1992 would see the release of the inevitable sequel Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, which saw the return of Moranis, Strassman, Oliveri and, in a brief cameo, O’Neill, but neither Johnston not the original trio of creators would reprise their roles behind the scenes. The central set piece of the story would be the baby that, due to another Szalinski accident, has been transformed into a one hundred and twelve foot tall monster. This would be created by special effects artist Kevin Yagher, another veteran of Elm Street who, unlike Johnston, would suffer all-too-brief directing career after the disaster of Hellraiser: Bloodline. Much like with Re-Animator, it would be the mad scientist protagonist that would prove to be the main appeal of the franchise. ‘People admire Rick’s character,’ claimed producer Ed Feldman. ‘He’s a kind of off-the-wall scientist with a wonderful homey touch and a huge likability factor. Audiences have great compassion for him.’

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