There was an earthquake at the box office over the weekend. San Andreas, the disaster epic about a massive tremor that crumples most of the California coast, exceeded its makers’ expectations by taking in a healthy $53 million at the box office in its opening weekend. I’m told the film’s SFX are stellar, but the rock upon which San Andreas was founded is the hard-bodied Dwayne Johnson, who gives some silly doings a welcome gravitas.
That’s how they make disaster movies, big-budget-style. (San Andreas was co-produced by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow, reportedly on a budget of $110 million.) Back in my Roger Corman days, we were much further down on the Richter scale, so to speak. Yes, we imitated the majors by releasing movies about man-eating fish (Piranha), natural disasters (Avalanche), and dinosaurs running amok in the modern world (Carnosaur). Given our tiny budgets and short production schedules, we could count neither on state-of-the-art special effects nor on star power. But that didn’t stop us from trying.
Roger Corman, my boss at Concorde-New Horizons, particularly liked the idea of films that were, as he invariably put it, “ripped from the headlines.” Back in the early days, immediately after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, Roger gathered his forces and whipped out a scientifically goofy but exciting drive-in flick called War of the Satellites. That was well before my time. But I remember what happened when the military dictator Manuel Noriega was removed from power in 1989, following the U.S.-led invasion of Panama. For the briefest of moments, Noriega escaped his captors. Roger was delighted, envisioning an action thriller called The Hunt for Noriega. He hired a writer to crank out a suitable script over the weekend. Unfortunately, Noriega was quickly caught, and that project unceremoniously ended.
Then there was the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake, which did much damage in the San Francisco area that same year, famously crippling the Oakland Bay Bridge. As soon as the earth stopped shaking, Roger dispatched a camera crew to capture real-life footage of the rubble. He let it be known in the press that his new movie, Aftershock, would present the cold, hard truth of what had happened. Then, of course, we needed a writer. Since I was Roger’s story editor, I was charged with finding a hot young author who could follow the John Sayles route of moving from prose fiction into screenwriting. My discovery, Madison Smartt Bell, was an award-winner who’d written a story about a film editor and was eager to plunge into the business of moviemaking. He met with Roger, who directed him to focus his script on the infrastructure failures that made that Loma Prieta quake so devastating. Madison dutifully did as instructed, making his main character (if memory serves) a whistleblowing building inspector. But then Roger, predictably unpredictable, decided this scenario was boring. After all the work I’d put into hammering out a deal with Madison, he was suddenly ousted. (Don’t cry for him: he’s been a National Book Award finalist for a novel about the Haitian revolution, All Souls’ Rising, and has otherwise had a great career. We’re still occasionally in touch.)
Meanwhile, Roger’s new idea was to edit his earthquake-rubble footage into the story of a young woman incarcerated by a madman, à la The Collector. The title became Quake, and my buddy Louis Morneau directed Steve Railsback as the local crazy who takes advantage of post-earthquake chaos to prey upon his beautiful victim. That real-life footage? It was deemed not terribly effective, and was barely used at all.