Mark Searby looks back at an infamous Hollywood flop, Hudson Hawk, that’s gradually built its audience over the last 30 years.
Bruce Willis wanted to be James Bond. Double O Willis. An MI6 officer but with a New Jersey accent. The Bond franchise itself had found itself in a rut during the early 1980s with Roger Moore playing the super spy well into his 40s and the storylines becoming more and more nonsensical. Willis, sensing the need for a younger more action-packed spy, started to believe that maybe he could be that new James Bond that modern audiences were crying out for.
Of course, MGM was never going to hire a non-British actor again for its British spy franchise (it didn’t work out too well for George Lazenby). Yet Willis couldn’t shake the idea of playing a character like 007 but with a bit more modern hip-ness. He’d already written the title song for his nonexistent spy film, now he just needed to get the movie made. But the only thing he had going for him was a forthcoming lead role in a comedy-drama TV show called Moonlighting. He simply didn’t have the star power to demand a movie be made about a song he wrote.
Cut to 1989. Willis star power was on fire. Moonlighting was one of the hottest TV shows around the world. He’d broken free of being typecast as a romantic lead thanks to an explosive performance in the action film Die Hard. His vocal work for Mikey the baby in the worldwide phenomenon film Look Who’s Talking continued his rise to the upper echelons of the movie industry. Movie studios were falling over themselves to get Willis into their productions.
Bottom line: it was time for Willis to pull that song out. What’s more, this wasn’t just an actor thinking he could sing either. It also had a very accomplished musician/producer behind it as well. Robert Kraft had become firm friends with Willis when he would frequent a bar that Bruce worked at before becoming a full-time actor. It was Kraft who helped Willis put together the music for the theme tune which they called ‘Hudson Hawk Theme’. Over time, Willis and Kraft had tweaked the title character into a super sleuth who could crack any safe in the world. A wise-cracking cat-burglar with a new Jersey accent called Eddie Hawkins aka Hudson Hawk.
Big time producer Joel Silver, who’d previously experienced huge success with Willis in Die Hard 1 and 2, threw money at Hudson Hawk. Bags and bags of money. Originally set to cost $42m, the budget soon ballooned past $50 million with some putting the final price at $70 million. Mind you, it was never going to be cheap filming in European locations such as Italy, England and Hungary. Problems arose in Budapest when the correct materials including paint and fabric couldn’t be found and had to be shipped in from Germany and England. It also didn’t help that the Gold Machine that was to feature in the finale was made in England at a cost of $1 million, but had to be shipped to Hungary in five 20-foot long juggernauts because that’s where the sets had been constructed.
Behind the camera was proving to be just as difficult. Director Michael Lehmann was experiencing what it was like to helm a big budget Hollywood studio film after previously hitting with indie movies Heathers and Meet The Applegates. Lehmann was being given conflicting notes from the studio, the producers and the lead actor as to how he should direct the film. Reports surfaced that Willis was unofficially calling the shots and Lehmann was just following. Willis did address the rumour by saying “We all contributed ideas. If I thought up a joke, we used it. But Michael directed this film.”
The shooting schedule slid from 81 to 106 days of filming before it finally wrapped. It wasn’t helped by the script re-writes that were taking place during filming (a reported 80 drafts of the script was never denied). The final script wasn’t locked into place until three weeks before the end of filming. It was an exhausting filming experience for everyone involved, but the worst was yet to come.
By the time the film-going public clapped eyes on the Hawk it had mutated into a box office turkey. It lasted only four weeks in US cinemas and pulled in a measly $16 million. If that wasn’t bad enough industry insiders were comparing it to Warren Beatty’s Ishtar film that also spectacularly bombed several years earlier. Bruce Willis had a response for those lambasting him for the film’s failure “I don’t concern myself with box office, I concern myself with being an interesting actor.”
So where did it all go so wrong for Hudson Hawk? One of the big problems was that the moviegoing public didn’t know what the film was. The trailers made it seem as if it would be another Willis action movie. The film’s poster screamed ‘Catch the excitement! Catch the adventure! Catch the thief!’ Nowhere in the trailer, poster or other marketing material did it mention comedy or musical.
It didn’t help that those involved in the film didn’t fully understand its tone either. When producer Joel Silver was on-set he would shout out films that he felt Hudson Hawk could be compared to, movies such as The Blues Brothers, The Flintstones, The Pink Panther, Ocean’s 11 and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. There were suggestions that it could be a James Bond for the 90s. Or an updated Bob Hope and Bing Crosby-esque road trip movie.
The fudged marketing could be seen as the final nail in the coffin, but there were problems already. The constant on-set rumours of Willis allegedly throwing his weight around had made it to the trade press. Was there any truth in the rumour that Willis’ then wife Demi Moore had French actor Maruschka Detmers fired because she was jealous her husband would be spending time around her? Of course not. The real truth is Detmers had suffered spinal damage during a difficult pregnancy and couldn’t continue to work after her first day filming so was replaced by Andie MacDowell. But that didn’t stop the gossip.
Michael Lehmann was in the difficult position too of having to downplay Willis’ reported interference with his directing. When questioned, Lehmann responded at the time “I like Bruce a lot, and he cares about his work, and technically he’s a very good actor. But it’s hard to work with a star who’s also a producer on the movie, because he ultimately has more control than I do.”
Richard E Grant’s memoir With Nail goes into scathing yet hilarious details about Hudson Hawk. Stories are told of Willis delaying filming as he would watch back his close-ups on the video replay monitors after each take, the late Danny Aiello demanding re-writes to his character to ensure he didn’t die in a huge car fireball but lives to see another day, and of Bunny the dog not being able to fetch the ball. Grant’s stop-start Hudson Hawk hell lasted four months but only amounted to roughly 20 days of actual filming, leaving him to reflect “this movie is a one-way ticket out of my mind.”
There’s no couple of things that caused Hudson Hawk to flop at the box office. It was a production that had a multitude of problems. It was a case of those involved all pulling in opposite directions without one clear goal to aim for. Its unevenness created a weird hybrid of slapstick, action, mystery with a touch of brutal violence and a hint of conspiracy theory. The failure of Hudson Hawk didn’t derail Willis’s continued ascension to the A-list of Hollywood actors.
It did make him a trade press punchbag for a while – particularly given that the high profile The Bonfire Of The Vanities had flopped the year before too – yet he brushed it off and continued to make big blockbuster movies. Over the intervening years, Willis has on occasion spoken about Hudson Hawk in warm tones. It was clearly a passion project for him and Kraft even though it didn’t set the box office alight.
But across VHS, cable and disc, it’s grown its audience, an entirely new set of fans who love it for what it truly is – a quirky action-comedy musical that plays by its own rules.
Here, then, is the insight of the project from one its authors: the aforementioned Robert Kraft…
Is it true that the original idea for Hudson Hawk came about because yourself and Bruce Willis wrote only a theme song. That at the time there was no intention to make a film of it or the character?
That’s like the inside out version of it. I was a songwriter in New York City and my very best friend was a bartender in New York City. I was walking on the West side of Manhattan one blustery afternoon and there is a very, very strong wind that blows from the Hudson river across Manhattan in the Fall and I was thinking as I walked along that in Chicago they call the wind that blows off Lake Michigan ‘The Hawk’. I had this thought that this wind that was very strongly blowing through the West side of Manhattan must be ‘The Hudson Hawk’ and I thought what a cool name for a character.
I proceeded to write a song as I walked called The Hudson Hawk, a story of a two-bit criminal who gets in and out of scrapes by his own ingenuity, and I walked all the way to the bar where my friend was a bartender and I told him about this song and I played it for him. He said the most unlikely thing: “someday I’m going to be a movie star, and this is going to be my first movie. The story of this song.” I said “why don’t you finish making my drink and we will leave those kinds of fantasies to another time.” I was thinking I’m an aspiring songwriter and he’s a bartender who wants to be an actor. The possibility of me being a Rockstar or him being a movie star were highly unlikely.
That was 1980 and in 1990 we were in Rome shooting Hudson Hawk and Bruce Willis was arguably the biggest action star in the world at that time. I was the executive producer of the film, the co-composer of the score and, as they say in Hollywood, shit happens.
Had Bruce and you recorded the theme tune during the intervening years?
In the early 1980s I made a demo as I heard it. It was slightly unfinished and Bruce and I kind of finished it together. We had a theme song and then the Hollywood thing started. Bruce became a big movie star with Die Hard and then he got his own movie deal. In the interim I produced two Bruce Willis records, both of which sold millions of copies. Suddenly he’s a recording artist and I’m a big record producer. I produced and wrote The Mambo Kings, which becomes a hit record and movie. So, both our careers are going swimmingly and Hudson Hawk goes through a couple of iterations with different screenwriters who are taking a shot at taking my song, and the very flimsy lyrics, and turning it into these fantastical 120 page movie scripts.
The final version was reeeeeally far away from the song story. But I had no complaints at that point. I was very happy to be a movie producer. It all worked out. In retrospect it was quite comic the way it happened. The fact the movie became a cult movie is funny because I had no idea what was going on. I was just happy to be included. Happy to be getting credit. I had a lot of fun in Italy and a lot of fun with Bruce. I didn’t know what was happening until it happened.
How did you pitch the idea to Joel Silver? I have visions of you and Bruce sat at a piano playing the theme song for him.
The answer to that is, as they say in England, fucked if I know?! Joel Silver had just come off producing monstrous Bruce Willis movies. Bruce and Joel were making money hand over fist and Bruce pitched Joel this idea and Joel said let me see if I can get it written.
They went to the writer of Die Hard first – Steven E de Souza. He wrote a script that I quite liked but for some reason that was rejected and then [director] Michael Lehmann was brought onboard and he went to his friend Daniel Waters and he wrote the second script which the studio liked. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I would read these scripts and think ‘I guess so?’ I’m just a composer. So, I don’t think Joel was ever really pitched. I think he liked the idea that Bruce had in general.
My whole concept was that Hudson Hawk was going to be the anti-James Bond. He was going to be a street crook from New Jersey who had lots of skills that were extremely unorthodox and then some that he has learnt in prison. So, he was a kind of rough and tumble anti-James Bond. I thought Hudson Hawk could be a series [of films] like James Bond and we will make Hudson Hawk movies for ever. As it turns out, that didn’t happen.
Whose idea was it to have Bruce and Danny Aiello’s characters perform the robberies while singing classic songs?
The idea kind of surfaced between us. They could time them because they knew the times of very famous songs and it was brilliant. I think Daniel Waters, the screenwriter, deserves a huge amount of credit for this. The idea surfaced, and I flew back to New York from Rome to record the songs. I then flew back to Rome and had Danny Aiello and Bruce sing them. The whole thing was tremendously musical and super original. I love that part of the film. It was a collaboration on all levels.
Was it easier to produce the songs because Bruce and Danny were already successful singers?
Yes, absolutely. They could swing, and they were funny. Bruce and I had our biggest hit in Great Britain with that first Bruce Willis record called The Return Of Bruno. The song Under The Boardwalk was, I think, number two in England and the second single Respect Yourself was also top ten. It was top ten around the world. So Bruce already had a reputation as a singer. Danny was a really great saloon singer. They were easy to record. It was a fun part of the whole thing.
The original trailers for Hudson Hawk made it look like an action film when it was more an action comedy with musical sequences. Do you think the marketing was wrong?
Whatever was wrong it was really wrong. I learnt a couple of very valuable lessons.
One of them, and few people will ever get a chance to use this lesson, was: don’t ever believe what happens at the movie premiere. I went to the movie premiere of Hudson Hawk and everybody was hugging and slapping me on the back and saying what an enormous hit it will be. I since learned that that is what happens at every movie premiere. Even if the movie is a complete dog’s breakfast people come up to you and say, “Oh my goodness, what a hit.”
So I was convinced it was going to be a huge hit just because the premiere was such a huge and exciting night. The other thing I learnt on this movie was, and I’m here myself subsequently say this, “Well I guess they know what they are doing” as I’m looking at something that looks absolutely crazy. I should take note of that because when I say “They know what they are doing” they don’t.
There was a lot of Hudson Hawk that was really crazy ideas and experiments. The marketing of it you are absolutely right. No one could quite get their arms around what it was, and I think it was probably easier to market Bruce Willis as an action hero after Die Hard 2 had just crossed a $100m, which happened just before Hudson Hawk came out. So, Bruce Willis in a comedy was a much harder sell.
Hudson Hawk has this cult status now. What are your thoughts on it finally finding an audience?
I think the cult audience… that audience that see’s something that is so kind of strange and wonderful, they love it with all its flaws. Often that happens when you deeply love something because it is original and flawed in its own way but that makes it unique. There is nothing like it. There are parts of it that are crazy and so extreme. It was so first class and expensive for what was a slapstick comedy. I can’t explain the cult status, but God bless them.
And finally, did you and Bruce ever talk about a sequel?
That’s a really funny question. Only in jest. I think he is understandably proud of Hudson Hawk, and always has been. He felt it was undeservedly ridiculed. I can’t imagine anyone would ever go after a sequel and spend any money on it. Maybe there is a Hudson Hawk TV series though and have him, at this age, return to the screen as a TV detective who’s always getting into silly scrapes…
Hudson Hawk is available on DVD, Blu-ray and on demand. It is, and always was, much better than its initial reaction may have led people to believe.
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.