As a child, Steven Spielberg was captivated by dinosaurs. He collected cast-iron figurines of them and preferred them in starring roles on the big screen. “I was more interested in the dinosaurs in King Kong than I was in King Kong himself,” remembers the Academy Award-winning director. “I thought the T. rex was one of the most awesome dinosaurs of the fossil record! But I never knew how to parlay all my love for paleontology into a story until Michael Crichton came along and wrote his book.”
That book was Jurassic Park, which Spielberg adapted in 1993 into an exhilarating adventure and one of the highest-grossing movies of all time—not to mention a groundbreaking technological achievement. “It changed special effects forever,” the director says, “and for better or for worse, it really did introduce the digital era.”
In this oral history, published in 2013 to celebrate the movie’s 20th anniversary, EW looked back at the film that so memorably shook the earth.
Spielberg and author Crichton had been developing a feature film based on Crichton’s script Cold Case, about his time as a medical resident (which would become the TV series ER). Crichton, who passed away from cancer in 2008, told the director about another idea he was working on: a novel about dinosaurs being brought back to life through old samples of their DNA. Spielberg was immediately hooked. When galleys for Jurassic Park made their way around Hollywood in May 1990, the sci-fi adventure became the It project to buy. According to Spielberg, other interested directors may have included Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) and James Cameron (Avatar). Universal won the bidding war, thanks in large part to Spielberg’s relationship with Crichton. The director started storyboarding before the script was even written and quickly assembled an effects team. Creature master Stan Winston (Aliens) created the large-form models, including a nearly 20-foot-tall T. rex, and stop-motion artist Phil Tippett (RoboCop) would animate miniatures based on those Winston designs for the more elaborate action sequences. Then, Industrial Light & Magic’s Dennis Muren, who had just designed the liquid-metal effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, brought up the idea of using CGI to animate the dinosaurs. Muren invited Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and Tippett to watch a CG demo of a gallimimus stampede.
STEVEN SPIELBERG Director Here’s what was scary: We were creating the title characters of a film. These were the stars of the picture, these dinosaurs. And if that didn’t work, nothing about Jurassic Park could have worked. So that was daunting, because I was using Universal’s money to basically make an experimental dinosaur picture.
KATHLEEN KENNEDY Producer I remember getting the phone call where Dennis said, “I think I have something you and Steven should take a look at.” We saw this wire-frame model of a dinosaur running across the screen, and it caused five or six of us to literally leap to our feet because it was so extraordinary and significantly beyond anything we had seen in motion control up to that point.
SPIELBERG The last time my jaw dropped like that was when George Lucas showed me the shot of the Imperial cruiser [in Star Wars]. I showed it to [stop-motion effects legend] Ray Harryhausen. He was absolutely enthralled and very positive about the paradigm changing. He looked at the test and said, “Well, that’s the future.”
DENNIS MUREN Full-motion dinosaurs I knew how hard it was to get these effects to look good, and I was just sitting there saying, “This is impossible that we did it.” Since the early ’80s, there was this promise that CG could do this, and it had finally delivered.
PHIL TIPPETT Dinosaur supervisor Steven asked me how I felt after seeing the footage and I said, “I think I’m extinct.” He said, “That’s a great line. I’m putting that in the movie.”
Although his go-motion models were not used in the film, Tippett, a paleontology enthusiast, ended up staying on as a sort of choreographer for the dinosaurs. He even insisted the animators take mime classes over the course of six weeks to learn how to move like a dinosaur.
TIPPETT It’s very helpful physically. When you act it out, you internalize it. You can feel it a different way.
SPIELBERG Phil gave all the dinosaurs personalities and real characteristics based on his experience with the animal kingdom and the natural world.
TIPPETT Another thing that was really important is that they locked me in a room with Gary Rydstrom for a week. Before we started doing the actual performances, I wanted to have the dinosaur voices, or as close as we could.
GARY RYDSTROM Sound designer I tried to stay organic, so all the dinosaur stuff is from real animals. The raptor is probably made up of bits and pieces of 20 or 30 different animals, to make a vocabulary. So breathing, guttural sounds, screams, communication – that kind of thing. But the main attack scream is a combination of a walrus, for the low frequency, and then the higher-frequency range was a boy dolphin pining for a female.
With preproduction under way, Spielberg selected screenwriter David Koepp to help Crichton adapt the book, based on a recommendation from Robert Zemeckis, who was directing Death Becomes Her, co-written by Koepp.
DAVID KOEPP Screenwriter Steven was looking around for somebody to take a fresh shot at Jurassic so I read it and got a meeting and told them how I thought I’d do it. I do remember that I wanted to start it in a sort of a globe-trotting way, I wanted to give it this feel of international dimension.
SPIELBERG David basically took it from a banquet to fast food and that’s a compliment because the movie feels like a drive thru. The scenes are tight. The story David wrote is a page-turner. There’s just enough science to make it credible and then it’s a downhill race from then on.
KOEPP The problem turning the book into a movie was that there’s a vast amount of scientific exposition and how on earth do you get that in a movie? I remember Steven and I were wrestling with that very issue, about the DNA, and one of us said, “What are we supposed to do? Have a little animated character called Mr. DNA?” And the other one said, “Yes! That’s exactly what we’re going to do!”
SPIELBERG Yeah, that was my idea. When I was a kid, the AV kids used to wheel in the projector and show these Frank Capra produced and directed documentaries on the mind, the heart, and the sun. I just remember all the interstitial animation that was done to illustrate the science and thought, “Why don’t we do all this in a two-minute animated handbook for the audience?” It would be easy for everybody to understand how this is even possible to bring dinosaurs back.
Spielberg then set about finding the actors who would spend much of their screen time running from these ancient behemoths, including director Richard Attenborough as park creator John Hammond, Jeff Goldblum as chaos (and quip) expert Ian Malcolm, Sam Neill as stern Dr. Alan Grant, and Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello as Hammond’s grandkids. Laura Dern was Spielberg’s first choice to play paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler.
LAURA DERN Dr. Ellie Sattler I was talking with Nicolas Cage, and we had just done Wild at Heart together, and I said to him, “Nic, they want to put me on the phone with Steven Spielberg, but they want to talk to me about a dinosaur movie…” And he was like, “You are doing a dinosaur movie! No one can ever say no to a dinosaur movie!” I was like, “Really?” And he’s like, “Are you kidding? It’s a dream of my life to do a movie with dinosaurs!” [Laughs] So he was such an influence on me. Then I talked to Steven and he goes, “I know that you’re doing your independent films, but I need you to be chased by dinosaurs, in awe of dinosaurs, and have the adventure of a lifetime. Will you do this with me?” And I was like, “Sure.”
SAM NEILL Dr. Alan Grant I was in L.A., on the way to a job in Canada, and my agent called and said Steven Spielberg would like to meet with you in half an hour. So I got a cab and I went over to Steven’s house and we sat in his hallway and I looked at his art and we talked about this thing Jurassic Park. It was all very surprising. So I went to Canada and two days later, I had the part. And three or four weeks after that we started shooting in Hawaii. So it all happened real quick. I hadn’t read the book, knew nothing about it, hadn’t heard anything about it, and in a matter of weeks I’m working with Spielberg.
JANET HIRSHENSON Casting director I read the book and I thought of Jeff Goldblum right away. There were several other people we taped for the part, though. Jim Carrey had come in and he was terrific, too, but I think pretty quickly we all loved the idea of Jeff.
JEFF GOLDBLUM Ian Malcolm A meeting was set up, so I went over there to Amblin. I’d quickly read the book in preparation and Steven said, “Since we scheduled this meeting, there’s an idea afoot to combine the two characters, to absorb your character into the Sam Neill character.” I said, “Well, geez. I hope you don’t do that.” I might have even advocated on the spot, and I came back and lo and behold I had a little part in it.
ARIANA RICHARDS Lex I was called into a casting office, and they just wanted me to scream. I heard later on that Steven had watched a few girls on tape that day, and I was the only one who ended up waking his sleeping wife off the couch, and she came running through the hallway to see if the kids were all right.
JOSEPH MAZZELLO Tim Steven had me screen-test with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman for Hook. I was just too young for the role. And because of that, Steven came up to me and said, “Don’t worry about it, Joey. I’m going to get you in a movie this summer.” Not only a nice promise to get, but to have it be one of the biggest box-office smashes of all time? That’s a pretty good trade.
Filming began in August 1992 on Kauai, Hawaii, with actors facing off against Winston’s life-size creations.
DERN When I saw the triceratops, I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Sam Neill – we were both freaking out. And like Sam does in the movie, we did lay ourselves over the belly and feel the belly moving in and out. I forced my way in, and [the puppeteers] let me go into the belly of the dinosaur and watch them work.
NEILL The thing was breathing – Stan Winston’s puppets were so incredible. To touch them was to blow your mind.
GOLDBLUM I used to be enthralled with dinosaurs like a lot of kids. I grew up in Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museum had at the time the biggest display and I would traipse through the exhibit like once a week. So cut to me in Hawaii coming on the set and seeing that thing already fully there and the puppeteers – one working the eyes, one doing the breathing. For all the world, it was a live dinosaur sitting there. Amazing.
JOHN WILLIAMS Composer The sight of the animals as we saw them for the first time, I thought what I saw was awesome and that the animals were beautiful and inspiring and the orchestra could illustrate some of the sense of absolute wonder and breathtaking beauty of what our actors are supposed to be seeing.
Winston’s animatronics were augmented by CGI courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic. At this point, CG effects were still in their nascency and the idea of adding dinosaurs fully in post-production was a new concept to most of the actors.
MUREN Actors are great. They don’t have any problem imagining something that’s not there. That’s part of what their job is, creating a character. So people said a lot, “Boy it must be hard for actors to do that.” You know, not really. And if it is, they’re not complaining. They’re getting it right away, they know where to look where there’s nothing.
DERN With ILM and Dennis Muren, those guys we’ve gotten to know from their Oscar-winning speeches from all the movies they’ve worked on since, but when I met them, I was like, “Oh that’s sweet, dudes. You’re, like, into computers?” I didn’t even know what they were talking about. “There’s a piece of paper up there in the tree and it has an X on it. Just stare at that. That’s a brachiosaurus.” And we were all like, “Okay… is there still going to be an X when they see the movie, or are you going to put something else in?” “No, no, Laura, we’re going to put something else in.” [Laughs]
NEILL Steven said, “Look over there and imagine there’s a whole plain of grazing dinosaurs of all different stripes and persuasions. How would you feel about that?” And I said, “Oh s—. I don’t know Steven, I think I’d faint!” That’s why my knees go in the shot.
MAZZELLO For a long time, I was upset, because I didn’t get to see any [dinosaurs]. We were running around in Hawaii with the gallimimus that were supposed to be running past us that were just computer animated. And I remember one scene where the T. rex comes out of the woods, snatches one up, and eats it. What I got to look at was this wooden stick with a dinosaur head drawn at the top of it that I think I, as a 9 year old, could have drawn and a couple of guys moving it around and Steven screaming into a megaphone, “Okay, now he’s eating him, Joe. He’s eating him now. You’re looking at him. He’s eating him.” I was a little upset. I was like “Yo, when are we getting some dinosaurs. I keep hearing this movie’s about dinosaurs.”
NEILL Steven was holding a bullhorn and roaring in a not very convincing way. It’s difficult enough acting to a tennis ball, but it’s even harder when you’re trying not to laugh.
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