Today is the 30th anniversary of the release of The Running Man, a movie that asks what a Philip K. Dick story would look like if it had been made by a Joel Silver type. It’s ultimately a mid-tier Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in terms of notoriety, but also one which is undergoing a certain re-appreciation as of late, especially as its vision of a future ruled by reality TV has sadly come to pass. Here’s the story of how it got made.
It all started when an independent producer happened upon an interesting Richard Bachman book.
George Linder, who owned the country’s largest supplier of lightweight wheelchairs, first came across The Running Man in an airport bookstore in 1982. He’d never heard of Bachman nor did he have any reason to question his identity. He simply thought he’d found a good book. I mean, just look at that tagline: “Welcome to America in 2025, when the best men don’t run for President; they run for their lives.”
It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it’s exactly the trashy page-turner you want at an airport. Linder couldn’t stop imagining the tagline being read by Don “In a World” LaFontaine over a movie trailer, to the point he decided he needed to make the movie himself. As he told Cinefantastique, “I contacted the author’s agent and was a bit taken aback to learn that he was asking a comparatively great deal of money for the option of a book which had less than 100,000 copies in print. I mean, who had ever heard of ‘Richard Bachman’?”
No one. Bachman was simply a random author who seemed to jump from one theme and genre to another, tackling school violence (1977’s Rage), Philip K. Dick-like dystopias (1979’s The Long Walk, 1982’s Running Man), and Steinbeckian conflicts between man and government (1981’s Roadwork). If the publisher overvalued his work that was their problem, but Linder couldn’t walk away. Running Man had a hold of him. So, he agreed to the publisher’s $20,000 up-front payment with a built-in bigger bump down the road should the film actually get made.
Next, he surveyed the Hollywood landscape to find the right partners.
Say hello to Mr. Bachman’s Dark Half.
Linder’s search led him to Rob Cohen and Keith Barish, who were then in the process of setting up a slate of ten big-budget genre pictures through their new company, Taft/Barish. Cohen had a decade of experience as a studio executive at Fox TV and Motown Production as well as several years as a producer and TV director; Barish had just earned his first producing credits, most notably for ‘81’s Endless Love and ‘82’s Sophie’s Choice.
“When [Linder] took it to them,” Running Man’s screenwriter Steven de Souza recalls, “Cohen said, ‘Boy, you made a lousy deal. Why is the second payment [on the option] so high?’ That’s when they realized it was Stephen King.”
Look, it’s 2017, and you’re reading an article about the making of Running Man. You probably already know Richard Bachman is just Stephen King’s pen name for his more off-brand works. But that little nut wasn’t cracked until 1985 when a DC bookseller put the two together. Until then, it was one of the publishing world’s biggest secrets. Linder, Cohen, and Barish genuinely had no idea what they had until the publisher had to tell them. As Linder put it, “I felt like I’d found a Rembrandt in K-Mart!”
Cohen agreed, admitting he eventually bought Linder’s pitch “with the understanding that we could use King’s name on the advertising.” However, few Stephen King movies scrape by without some friction between the author and his adapters, and once he saw what they’d done to his story he forbid them from using his name, telling Cinefantastique, “It was totally out of my hands. I didn’t have anything to do with the making [of the movie]…it doesn’t have much in common with the novel at all, except the title.”
Of course, by the time of the film’s release in 1987 the Bachman/King ruse was no longer a secret, but not everyone knew about it yet and among those who did some still found it confusing. So, slapping “Richard Bachman” on a movie poster didn’t mean as much as “Stephen King.”
Casting Arnold forced them to rethink the story.
If King had actually been involved in the making of the movie he undoubtedly would have lobbied for the casting of literally anyone other than Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the lead. The Ben Richards of the book is a malnourished everyman with a sick child and wife turning tricks to get medicine. Due to the worldwide economic depression, he can’t get work and has to go on the Running Man show as a last resort to hopefully save his family. That’s about “as far away from the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in the movie as you can get,” King would later say.
Yeaaaaaahhhhh, Arnold doesn’t really do “everyman.” No one who looks and sounds like that can. They tried to cast someone who could, originally looking at (and possibly even officially casting, however briefly) Christopher Reeve. But Arnold brought with him a worldwide appeal which could help secure a budget through foreign pre-sales.
So, as de Souza put it: “I didn’t have to destroy King’s vision, but instead tailor the movie to Arnold like a suit.” Thus, Ben Richards became a disgraced former law enforcer with a tendency toward puns, a love of cigars and no wife and kid tying him down. It’s antithetical to the original intent, but so was turning the Terminator from an anonymous infiltration device to a physical specimen who stands out in any crowd. Look at how well that worked out for everyone, or so the thinking probably went.
At this point, the budget was set at $10m ($5m less than what Predator was made for that same year, btw). It would eventually grow to $27m, $5m of which went to covering Arnold’s salary. Linder eventually had to sell his wheelchair company to cover the overages.
King’s version of the Running Man needed some pizazz.
While Linder, Cohen, and Barish set about pulling the money together, de Souza, who came to the project from Commando and 48 Hours and would later co-write Die Hard, kept pecking away at the script. His biggest challenge, the part where he had to create entirely new material unrelated to King’s novel, was in the Running Man show itself.
“The game show portion in the book, the studio portion is like 5 pages,” de Souza told an Alamo Drafthouse Los Angeles audience during a post-screening Q&A earlier this year. “The host is a different guy from the producer. The producer’s really the prick. But the game show in the book is like a 1950s game show. Ever see reruns of You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx? That’s what the game show is like. There’s a guy with a microphone, and a girl comes out with a box around her neck. The runners pick an envelope, and that gives you a head start, 10 minutes or 20 minutes.”
Hardly cinematic, especially considering all the bells and whistles employed by actual mid-80s game shows of the time like Wheel of Fortune and the $10,000 Pyramid. They needed a Running Man that looked more like something people would actually watch, yet The Running Man in King’s novel is a month-long program that airs every night. On top of that, the show isn’t even live since the contestants tape themselves and mail the tapes back to the network at the end of every day. Moreover, the stalkers are nondescript assassins embedded in the everyday world, meaning anyone at any time could be the person who kills you. A terrifying scenario, but one the runners voluntarily sign up for.
All of that had to go. The Running Man needed to be a grotesque, but believably slick and entertaining affair, marrying the production trends of the late 80s and the dystopian ideas of Rollerball and Death Race 2000 with the bloodlust of the Roman Coliseum. Participation in the game also needed to be punitive, not voluntary, to up audience sympathy for the unjustly accused hero. So, de Souza, who’d started his career working in television, did his best to imagine what TV of the future would look.
But he wasn’t exactly the first to do so. There had already been German (1970’s Das Millionenspiel), French-Yugoslavian (1983’s The Price of Peril) and Italian (1983’s Endgame) films which toyed with the notion of a future dystopia where the pacified masses tune in to watch people kill each other on TV shows that look oddly like what we would now call reality TV. Whether de Souza was aware of any of that is unclear. He says he simply thought up the craziest things and WWF-style villains possible while also making sure to remember he was already living in a very strange world since an actor, Ronald Reagan, had become President, thus the “President’s agent” joke in the movie.
The original director wanted to lean harder into the dystopia of it all.
Greco-Italian director George Pan Cosmatos had made two movies since relocating to America, the first a horror film (1983’s Of Unknown Origin) which came and went, the second a little thing called Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). The huge success of the latter got him the Running Man gig.
Once on board, he pushed even harder into the totalitarianism of the plot and made the love interest (eventually played by Maria Conchita Alonso) a revolutionary who teaches Richards and opens his eyes to the need for action. Mostly, though, he sorta made it more like Rambo. As de Souza recalls:
“Cosmatos’ family suffered under the Nazi occupation in Greece. In the draft I did for George, there were roundups, there were concentration camps. He went way into that. His vision was that the 1% people lived in a complete biodome. He wanted to film all the upscale scenes in the Edmonton Mall, the biggest shopping center in the world at that time. So we were going to shoot in Canada and we scouted it. When [Richards] broke out of the city, there was going to be a river raft chase. I think he was just trying to get the movie back in the wilderness where he had done Rambo. He wanted the whole chasing part of the game to be in the wilderness.”
This script was budgeted at $27m. When the producers demanded cuts to make it shootable on an $18m budget Cosmatos walked. Or at least that’s the story de Souza tells now.
Rob Cohen told Alan Jones of Cinefantastique, Starburst and Radio Times a different story back in the 80s: “[Working with Cosmatos was] the worst experience I’ve ever had in the business. [He] was the least talented, least cooperative and the most horrible person I’ve ever had dealings with. We fired him after spending $700,000 on the picture.”
He would not be the last director fired from the movie.
For a minute they almost went Truman Show with it.
Alex Cox and Carl Schenkel were each approached about becoming Cosmatos’ replacement. Cox couldn’t make it work with his schedule since his work on Repo Man (‘84) had lined up Sid & Nancy (‘86), Straight to Hell (‘87) and Walker (also ‘87) in quick succession. Schenkel, a German director still looking to make his North American directing debut, was only involved with the production for two weeks before bowing out for fear of biting off more than he could chew.
So, Cohen decided to move on to Ferdinand Fairfax, a Brit with one movie to his name but several TV shows. Given that work history, perhaps it’s not surprising Fairfax’s pitch was to do what Peter Weir would later do with the first half of The Truman Show and simply make the show-within-the-movie, i.e., the actual Running Man broadcast, the movie.
“[Fairfax] had an interesting idea that the movie should be the actual broadcast, which would have had some narrative problems because how did [Ben Richards] get in trouble and stuff like that,” de Souza said. “He was making it very British. He said on an English crew, you have a tea lady who comes around with a cart of tea and biscuits. When the tea lady came through, the show stopped the crew stopped, the stalker stopped and the runners stopped and they all took a break, then started up again. It was kind of a Monty Python bridge too far. Before you could say, ‘What is the capital of Assyria?’ he was gone.”
Then they fired the director a week into filming.
They finally found their man with Andrew Davis, a longtime cinematographer who had recently branched out into directing, helming a forgotten slasher flick (The Final Terror) and one of the apparently good Chuck Norris movies (Code of Silence). Movies like Above the Law, Under Siege and The Fugitive were still in his future. Running Man was the next step up for him in his career.
It started off well. He worked with de Souza to undo all of the eccentricities Fairfax and Cosmatos had brought to the script. He handled pre-production duties, saw to the hiring of Paula Abdul to choreograph the dance numbers, the casting of Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa to play revolutionaries, Richard Dawson to play Killian, and generally got the movie ready to film by its September 1986 start date. Once that date came, they spent the first three days filming the prison break. Sometime after that, they shot the ice rink battle.
Then he was fired.
Wait. What went wrong?
Everything, apparently. They were only eight days into the shoot, and Davis was already $8m over budget. Cohen’s patience was wearing thin, and it disappeared entirely when he watched the dailies for the ice rink sequence.
As de Souza explained:
“In a meeting earlier, Andy said, ‘Listen, I have a great idea. At the end of the movie, when they break into the studio, they’re cornered. They’re trapped. Then Arnold reaches into his pocket and takes out one of the exploding hockey pucks, throws it and kills the guards. Rob and I look at each other and he says, ‘That makes Arnold pretty shitty. He had this thing in his pocket for the whole movie where the whole supporting cast is getting killed and he uses it to save his own ass. We’re not doing it.’ Then he’s behind schedule several days. He shot and improvised that scene and had Arnold pocket one of the hockey pucks.”
Cohen showed the footage to de Souza and Schwarzenegger in a “we’ve got a problem; what do you want to do about it?” emergency meeting. However, Schwarzenegger claims the actual decision to fire Davis was made without consulting him and transpired when he was away from set promoting a bodybuilding competition. When he came back, he was incensed and now concludes, “With such a terrific concept, Running Man should have been a $150 million movie. Instead, it was totally screwed up by hiring a first-time director and not giving him enough time to prepare.”
“First-time director”? Who is he talking about?
Starsky to the rescue.
By the early 80s, Paul Michael Glaser, aka Starsky from Starsky & Hutch, was in the process of transitioning away from acting and over to directing. He’d already turned some heads with his steady hand behind the camera of several Miami Vice episodes, crossing paths with Cohen who also directed a couple of early Vice episodes. Michael Mann, who knew both of them from his time writing for the show, suggested Glaser as the obvious answer to Cohen’s Running Man problem. His reasoning: Glaser’s vast experience in TV had prepared him to simply come in and get the job done on time according to the producer’s wishes.
Which is exactly what happened. Given little more than two days to prepare and no real authority to offer substantive notes on the script, Glaser steadied the ship and got Running Man done. He later told Cinefantastique, “Directing is basically problem-solving. When you come into something in the middle like I did, your problem solving goes up about 300%.”
All told, the shoot took 61 days and finished $17m over budget.
Don’t confuse test screen audiences. They don’t like that.
This is how the film ends, but it’s not how it was originally sequenced:
One of the many things Running Man is praised for predicting is the rise of the type of technology that makes it possible to digitally manipulate footage and easily fool audiences in the process. Of course, we now live in a world where Peter Cushing can be digitally recreated in Rogue One two decades after his death and Kevin Spacey can be digitally replaced in a movie six weeks before its release date. But that kind of thing was still a new idea in ’87.
It’s one which Cohen and de Souza only thought of because an effects company came to them with the offer to use “synth thespians” for the film’s most dangerous stunt scenes. The technology wasn’t quite there yet, though. An actor’s head had to be perfectly still for it to work. That wasn’t feasible for an entire film, but if the tech was this close in ’87 imagine what Killian can do with it in 2019. This gave Cohen the chance to execute the kind of fake-out twist ending he’d so loved on his first big movie, The Sting. Moreover, what if they fooled not just the in-studio audience watching The Running Man show but all of us watching the movie as well?
“As written and as shot,” de Souza recalls. “The scene where Jesse Ventura kills them both was presented to you as if it were real.” So, right around the time you’re thinking “Holy shit! Did they just really kill off Arnold?” it cuts to Alonso and Arnold watching their own deaths in disbelief from the Revolution’s underground headquarters. Then we see the scenes of Killian and his digital artists doctoring the footage, helping us understand what we just watched.
They ran that version of the film, albeit in a rough cut with unfinished effects and some of Arnold’s lines ADRed by de Souza himself, in front of a test screening audience of 700 randomly selected Palm Springs residents and tourists and watched from the back when the big moment came. As expected, the audience reacted exactly as the in-studio audience does in the film: stunned silence (he just broke Maria’s neck!) followed by screams for bloody murder (yeah, get him Arnold!) followed by yet more stunned silence (maybe that spike through Arnold’s skull is a mere flesh wound?).
The problem was once you trick an audience like that you risk losing some of them either to confusion or resentment. Plus, exposing it to them in an unfinished format with crucial effects shots missing only enhanced the confusion, though not significantly. Less than 2% of the surveyed test screening attendees said they didn’t understand how the people in the movie were fooled by the swerve, but that was enough to make the producers nervous. So, the scenes had to be resequenced to make sure we know the big twist before the audience watching the Running Man show does.
Damn you, Predator!
Even with its various delays and protracted pre-production period, The Running Man was finished in time for a summer 1987 release. Little problem: so was another Arnold movie (Predator) from a rival company (Fox).
Tri-Star was comfortable with potentially competing against Predator or at least somewhat overlapping with it, but Arnold wanted no part of that, especially given his low opinion of Glaser’s work. So, he exercised a clause in his contract to force Tri-Star to delay the release and give Predator a wide berth.
That was the right choice, financially. Predator made more money and got better reviews, turning Running Man into more of an afterthought snuck in-between Arnold’s big box office breakthroughs – Predator and Twins. Not that Running Man went by unnoticed. Roger Ebert, for one, seemed to at least mildly appreciate the film’s charm, reserving particular praise for Dawson’s performance:
“Playing a character who always seems three-quarters drunk, Dawson chain-smokes his way through backstage planning sessions and then pops up in front of the cameras as a cauldron of false jollity. Working the audience, milking the laughs and the tears, he is not really much different than most genuine game show hosts – and that’s the movie’s private joke.”
Others were quick to criticize the film for, as Monthly Film Bulletin put it, “providing exactly the same kind of violent spectacle that it criticises Killian for manufacturing and twenty-first-century audiences for watching.”
Off Running Man went, consigned to a future on home video and cable, destined to be loved by 12-year-olds and then somewhat mourned by those same kids when they grew up and watched the film again and wondered how they hadn’t noticed how silly it all looks. Schwarzenegger, for his part, devoted a mere 2 pages of his autobiography to the making of the movie. Here in 2017, he’d much rather take about Predator‘s 30th anniversary than Running Man’s.
But beneath Running Man’s junk cinema exterior lies a sea of genuinely good idea, and in recent years it has been the subject of critical reappraisals by FilmSchoolRejects, The AVClub, and DenOfGeek, among many others. It was even used as the centerpiece of an early 2000s academic documentary about the artifice of reality TV, somewhat ironic since Alonso and Schwarzenegger have each had their own stints as reality show hosts by now. The Running Man concept, minus all of the killing, of course, was even adapted into a reality show called The Runner last year (to say nothing of Japan’s own long-running Running Man reality show):
The BBC, Vice, and The Atlantic all took the occasion of Trump’s inauguration to look back at Running Man‘s version of 2017, lamenting the number of similarities they found. de Souza is right there with them, telling Vice he’s most distressed by the one major thing he got wrong (other than there being a pyramid in LA and the world still using cassettes): “The biggest downer of this movie is the idea that when the video tape surfaces showing that Killian has lied, everyone is instantly outraged and rises up. Apparently, it doesn’t work that way. We’ve heard the tapes and seen the tapes, and it’s had no effect. In real life, everyone goes right back to Facebook.”
In real life, problems aren’t solved by puns, no matter how hard Schwarzenegger sells: “Hey, Killian, here’s your Subzero, now plain zero.” But to be discussed with any degree of relevance and reverence thirty years later is pretty good for a movie which nearly tripled its budget and went through 4 directors, one of whom was fired a week into filming.
- BUDGET: $27m
- OPENING WEEKEND: $8m (stayed #1 for two weeks)
- TOTAL GROSS: $38m domestic
- CONTEXT: By the late 80s, all of Arnold’s starring movies (not counting Hercules in New York) had grossed at least $30m except for 1986’s Raw Deal, which was his first true flop (just $16m total). Then he hit a career-high with 1987’s Predator, which grossed the equivalent of $136m at today’s ticket prices and finished its run as the 12th highest grossing film of the year. If not for that, Running Man could have been seen as a nice rebound from Raw Deal into something which performed more according to his career average. However, given Running Man’s proximity to Predator as well as its out-of-control budget it went down as a box office disappointment.
- INFLATION: At 2017 ticket prices, Running Man’s domestic total converts to $86m, which is Terminator: Genisys ($89m)/Blade Runner: 2049 ($88m) territory for today’s sci-fi.