Tuesday, June 27, 2023

"Jurassic Park” and “Carnosaur”: When Dinosaurs Galumph Down Memory Lane

Thirty years ago this month, the nation held its collective breath, wondering how Steven Spielberg would bring to the big screen Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, a  bestselling novel about dinosaurs running amok in the modern world. And what was I doing around that time? Along with other members of Roger Corman’s creative staff, I was patting myself on the back, overjoyed that we at Concorde-New Horizons had managed to scoop Spielberg. Not in terms of lavish production values, of course. Hardly endowed with Spielberg’s access to CGI technology. we had managed to come up with only a single tyrannosaurus. Roger decreed that it be eighteen feet tall, thus out-Spielberging Spielberg. But the ceiling of our rather make-shift Venice studio was only sixteen feet high, so the height requirement had to go.

 It all began while the Crichton novel (first published in 1990) was being transformed into a motion picture. Always quick to sense the national pulse, Roger set aside a project dramatizing the bloody L.A. civil uprising of 1992 in order to bring his own dinosaur movie to the screen. Our mandate: to get our film into theatres before Jurassic Park opened, thus luring in viewers who couldn’t wait a moment longer to watch rampaging dinosaurs First, of course, came the script. Roger purchased a novel by the Australian sci-fi novelist, John Brosnan. A man who knew how to make a buck, Brosnan had published back in 1984 a novel called Carnosaur, under the nom de plume Harry Adam Knight. I  read it in the line of duty, looking for plot ideas, but didn’t find them in the book’s turgid pages. We at Concorde noted that the initials of Harry Adam Knight could certainly stand for “hack.” This novel was hack-work, pure and simple. Without question, we needed to start from scratch. All we kept from Carnosaur was its title . . .  and maybe that chicken farm set-up.

 Roger hired a bright but spelling-challenged USC film school grad, Adam Simon, to write and direct our dinosaur movie. Perhaps influenced by the opening of Brosnan’s novel on a chicken farm, Adam concocted a story about a mad scientist, working for the mysterious Eunice Corporation, who manipulates chicken embryos into future dinosaurs, the better to undermine the human race. The plotline allowed for lots of gory footage, and we hired a big-name actor for the key role of Dr. Jane Tiptree. While in Jurassic Park young Laura Dern was running from dinosaurs, we had her mother, Diane Ladd, playing the scientist who stirs up all the chaos. I don’t know if Ladd was the first-ever female mad scientist in the movie world, but she was outstandingly creepy. It was largely thanks to her vivid performance that TV reviewer Gene Siskel gave our movie an enthusiastic thumbs-up. (His boob-tube buddy, Roger Ebert, called Carnosaur the worst film of 1993.)

 Carnosaur still leaves Adam Simon with a bitter taste in his mouth. When Roger asked Simon to write and shoot his quickie dinosaur epic, Simon took the difficult assignment because he was guaranteed a $3 million budget. Then, three weeks before photography commenced, the budget suddenly shrank to $850,000, a figure Simon is now convinced was part of Corman’s plan all along. To make matters worse, when Roger (on the strength of Carnosaur’s success in video stores) spoke to the Hollywood Reporter, he bragged he’d laid out $5 million.  A humiliated Simon felt Carnosaur looked particularly shoddy if judged by the industry’s 1993 expectations of what $5 million can buy. So Simon now regards Carnosaur as a cautionary tale for fledgling filmmakers everywhere.


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