For the last three decades, Ed Naha has gained considerable acclaim as a writer for his work in motion pictures and television, as well as a critic and early driving force behind the legendary horror magazine Fangoria. During the 1970s he had gained a reputation through his film journalist in Rolling Stone and Playboy, before progressing to screenwriting in the mid-1980s through his association with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures on such cult favourites as Troll and Dolls, the latter bringing him to the attention of director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna.
Having conceived a story that would be ideal for their young children to enjoy, Naha wrote a script entitled Teenie Weenies about a group of kids who are accidentally shrunk by the kind-hearted but reckless scientist Wayne Szalinski and are forced to climb through the jungle of their back yard in order to make it home safely before being eaten alive by insects or attacked by giant dogs. The story would arouse the interest of Disney, but through its troubled pre-production Gordon and Yuzna would lose creative control, Naha’s script would be written and the movie ultimately released as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Ed Naha talks about his work on the movie and the small screen spin-off that would follow.
How were you first introduced to Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna and what led to your first collaboration on Dolls?
Back in the mid-’80s, I had written a movie for Charlie Band at Empire, Troll. Charlie asked me if I’d like to do another script and showed me a poster he’d already commissioned for a film called The Doll. It was the famous shot of a doll holding its two eyes in its hands while the empty eye sockets stared at the viewer. Who could say ‘no’ to that?
So, I went off to write a treatment. At the same time, Charlie met with Stuart and Brian after Re-Animator and they signed on to direct and produce. Eventually, we met (couldn’t be helped). So, it was sort of a shotgun wedding deal. And, it’s funny, because Stuart and I have remained close friends over the years but, when we first met, we eyed each other suspiciously. Stuart really wanted to get into the mythological aspects of the story and me? I just wanted to do a horror film. As it turns out, we were both heading for the same destination, only on different roads. Once we realised that, the two of us were like big little kids. ‘We can’t do that…can we?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘You know what would really be twisted?’ ‘Cool!’
Stuart went off to film Dolls in Italy and I stayed Stateside. The post-production was a bear because a lot of the doll effects initially involved a lot of real marionettes. The strings were clearly visible in a lot of scenes so the late, great David Allen was brought in to do stop motion versions of some of the marionettes and recreate some of action. It was a slow process because it was so expensive. The post-production took so long that Stuart actually filmed From Beyond while Dolls was lurching to life.
It was worth the wait, though. I think, out of all my theatrically released films, Dolls is my favourite.
Stuart Gordon has claimed that the concept for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – then known as Teenie Weenies – came about when Brian Yuzna wanted to make a movie his children could see. Do you recall this discussion and what kinds of ideas were discussed?
Stuart and Brian had young children back then and came up with this idea about shrunken kids. They pitched it to Disney and the studio was interested. So, they approached me about working with them and we came up with the story. 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.
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.
With you all known for your more adult work, was the thought of creating a family movie somewhat daunting and did you feel that your résumé may scare studios away?
The folks at Disney had known about me for a couple of years and kept on trying to get me involved in projects that, for various reasons, imploded. My first two movies (for Roger Corman) weren’t scary (at least they weren’t SUPPOSED to be). Plus, I’d done a lot of movie articles for Starlog and Future Life, as well as books on film, so the studio knew I wasn’t an axe-murderer (full-time, anyhow).
As far as the three of us being known for ‘adult’ work? Well, horror is fantasy, really. It’s fairy tale imagery with a little darker shading. And, when you meet the three of us in person, we’re kind of goofy. You really have to be able to get in touch with your kid ‘imagination turf’ when you work in movies, unless you’re constantly writing melodramas about one-legged ballerinas addicted to crack.
Who came up with the initial concept and how long did it take for the three of you to develop a full story?
You know, I honestly can’t remember. We sort of all bonked heads. I remember it being hysterically funny, though. When I was a little kid and mixed and matched my toys, I’d lay down on the floor on my stomach with my head turned to the side, so the floor before me was this vast landscape. Then, you could create your own adventures with toy dinosaurs or soldiers or puppets or whatever you had down there on the floor.
I found myself doing that in Stuart’s office. We had one scene where one of the kids was sliding from a table to another piece of furniture using thread as a rope. We created that using a paperclip and thread in the office. We were always doing stuff like that.
Later on, when I was working on the treatment – my treatments are almost first draft screenplays but written in narrative form – we’d all meet up in a Hamburger Hamlet in Hollywood and laughed our butts off, discussing gags and exchanging notes. This was in the dark ages before computers had script-writing programs that included formatting and stuff, so we were always printing out more and more versions. I think the amount of paper used just in the outline phase felled about a hundred trees.
Did the concept of the mad scientist come from Re-Animator and was there ever thought of casting Jeffrey Combs as Wayne Szalinski?
I honestly don’t know whether Stuart wanted Jeffrey or not. I can tell you, in retrospect, that the Disney execs heads would have exploded over that idea, though.
Do you think that Doc Brown in Back to the Future had made the mad scientist a little more acceptable for a family movie?
If you look at the Disney movies of the ’60s and ’70s, ‘mad’ scientists were pretty family-friendly. 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.’
One of the more effective characters was the ant who acts as their protector and eventually gives its life to save them. Was this how it was written in the script and were you pleased with how it translated onto the screen?
No. I was adamantly opposed to having Anty die. At a certain point during the creative process, the whole experience tanked. I mean, it just bit. After two solid years of development, we got a green light on the script. Then, Stuart got sick. Brian was sort of nudged out of the way and a new producer and a new director were air-dropped in. I was very naïve at the time and figured, ‘Okay, the show must go on.’ Not.
Things had to be changed. Why? Because that’s what happens when a new team comes in. One of the changes involved Anty dying. The original ending had Anty alive and well. To show you how last minute these ‘improvements’ to the script were, the children’s novelisation of the movie still has the original script’s ending with Anty, now the size of a pony, making an entrance in front of the snobby college bigwigs who are in the process of dismissing Wayne Szalinski’s story about his invention. Anty’s arrival proves that Wayne is telling the truth.
How did you come to write the screenplay with Tom Schulman and how many drafts were you forced to work through before everyone was satisfied?
I actually never worked with Tom. 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.
I was asked if I would mind if someone else did a polish. Heck no, sez I. Two months later, I saw the polish, which was a re-write and I hit the ceiling. After my Donald Duck squawking, some things were fixed. Other things weren’t.
Was Disney your first choice to develop the project and did you meet any kind of resistance there?
Stuart and Brian went to Disney right off the bat, as far as I know. Initially, the movie was going to be produced independent of the studio and the studio would distribute it. Later, the studio decided it would produce the whole enchilada. There was no resistance at all.
What WAS a little maddening was that, as the development process continued, we gathered more people on the project. When we started, it was Stuart, Brian and I meeting with the veep and our production executive. By the time we finished, the meetings were almost Arthurian. We’d meet in a conference room with all these ‘producers.’ It was like, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m the newest producer.’ ‘Okay. Today’s Tuesday. You sit next to Monday’s producer.’ Gack!
Another thing that was kind of funny was the fact that a lot of people couldn’t wrap their heads around the size of the kids, especially the flotilla of new people. So, on the cover of the script, we had a little stick figure that represented the size of one of the kids. There was an arrow pointing to the figure that said ‘Actual Size.’
Stuart Gordon was originally to have directed but was forced to back out due to ill health. Can you elaborate on the events that led to Joe Johnson being hired and did Brian Yuzna, who had recently made his directorial debut, not consider taking over?
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 Disney. I’m sure that what went on didn’t exactly resemble ‘the happiest place on Earth.’As for Brian’s directing? He hadn’t directed, at that point. His first film was released in ’89 and Honey was already in the can in ’88. As far as I know, he really wanted to produce back then. And he was a great, great producer.
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.
Was the studio nervous due to your earlier violent work and did they enforce any restrictions that seemed severe?
Nope. There were a few times when the development process seemed like a tag team match but that was primarily because we were at it so long. We’d get a little punchy. You’d find yourself at a meeting not quite knowing what the meeting was about.
What were your thoughts on the casting and overall feel of the movie? Who else was considered before Rick Moranis was cast as Wayne?
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.
How many different titles were suggested and who came up with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Was this something you were all satisfied with?
I have no idea who came up with the finished title. 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.
The movie became a huge success but were you all satisfied with end product?
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. F’rinstance, the ‘bookend’ scenes in the movie concerned a Thanksgiving fishing trip. I mean, when I think 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.
It also wasn’t booked too long at theatres. A re-issue of Peter Pan was slated for that summer. Well, by the Monday after its release, EVERYone was happy to call it a ‘family film’. The number of theatres showing Peter Pan shrunk so Honey could remain in place and the film remained in release for five or six months.
Were any of you invited to return for Honey, I Blew Up the Kid or did the studio want a fresh perspective?
Stuart was one of the producers on it. He and Albert Band, Charlie’s dad, got hold of a script written independently of Honey and transformed it into a sequel.
How did you come to return for the television series and how did this experience compare to writing the movie?
I was working in TV doing my dream project, The Adventures of Sinbad, when Disney announced they were doing Honey on television. I didn’t have a clue. Anyhow, I wound up at a reception where the CAA agent responsible for the show was and I was introduced as the writer of Honey. He shook my hand and said, ‘I loved the pilot episode script.’ Then, he was told I had written the movie. The guy turned beet red and sort of faded into the ether.
A year later, Sinbad was renewed for a third season. Then, one of the two parent companies was sold and, of course, the new team came in and wanted to make their mark. They axed the show. I got a call from someone at the Honey show. Their two writer/producers left the project and they wanted to know if I’d take their place. I went to a series of meetings and jumped into it.
Again, I was blessed with a great cast. Peter Scolari was a wonderful Wayne. He’s an amazing physical comedian. He likes Buster Keaton. I love Laurel and Hardy. We hit it off. Plus, I got a chance to bring in one of the Sinbad cast, George Buza, over to play Wayne’s next-door neighbour; a grumpy chief of police who winds up being Wayne’s comedic foil.
The best thing about working in TV is that you write something and a few weeks later, you’re watching it. It’s a much more ‘now’ experience than film.
We really did EVERY type of comedy on the TV show. The show was syndicated, so it was on at all hours in various markets. When we started getting letters from chemically altered college students who were watching at one in the morning, we figured, ‘Hey, we’re onto something, here.’
Are you proud of your work on the franchise and when was the last time you watched the movie?
It’s hard for me to think in those terms because writing is, like, what I do. That’s it. It’s just me, not some Hollywood guy, you know? It’s hard for me to grasp the idea that Honey is going to be remembered as a Disney film the same way that I remember The Absent-Minded Professor or Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I guess I’m more flabbergasted and/or honoured to have been part of the Honey world than proud. Proud seems sort of boorish, doesn’t it? ‘Look at what I’VE done.’ ‘Good. Here’s a cookie.’ The last time I saw the movie was in June of 1989 at the premiere. And I’ve seen every TV episode exactly one time, as well. I’m like that. When Stuart Gordon and I got together to add narration to the DVD release of Dolls, it was only the second time I’d seen it.
What can I say? I’d rather kick back and watch someone else’s work than my own. Maybe one day, if I get into the glamour of it all, I’ll start wearing socks, snort airplane glue and wind up on Celebrity Rehab. Until that time? I’m good just hanging out with my wife and dogs.’