End Of Days marked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the movies after more than a year away – but it was up against one hell of an immovable deadline to get made.

It was back in the 1970s that Arnold Schwarzenegger first became alerted to the fact that there was something not quite right with his heart. He discovered way back then he had a hereditary heart defect that at some point was going to need fixing. During the filming of Batman & Robin towards the end of 1996, he went for his annual physical check-up, and discovered that the moment had arrived. He’d known since he started getting chest burns following the making of True Lies a few years before that it was coming. Now it was here.

Schwarzenegger thus underwent major heart surgery in April of 1997, to allow him space to recover before the summer’s Batman & Robin press tour. He also intended to shoot his next picture at the end of that year too. The latter plan would prove a little ambitious, but he did attend to his Mr Freeze promotional duties.

The surgery as it turned out was both successful, but also provided a divide of sorts in his career. That post-surgery, the projects Schwarzenegger would pick would be less commercially successful, but he’d also be willing in a few cases to go in slightly leftfield directions.

And that was certainly the case with the film he picked next. In part this was because studios were cautious to immediately throw money at a major action star who’d had such an operation (Schwarzenegger details this a little more in his memoir, Total Recall, and the projects it cost him). To break the invisible blockade that had been erected, Arnie did a major TV interview with Barbara Walters nine months after his operation to get across he was ready and able.

This, combined with new images of him weight lifting and looking action starry had the desired effect. After a year break from the movies, it was independent production Armyan Bernstein – the chief of Beacon Pictures – who found him a way back.

But it was a project that came with a ticking clock.

Bernstein had been shepherding an end of the millennium thriller by the name of End Of Days, and given the subject matter, it absolutely needed to be released at the end of 1999. It was set to be a $100m production, yet by mid-1998, the film hadn’t even started shooting. Already by the time it got to Schwarzenegger, the project had passed through the hands of Tom Cruise, who elected to make Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia instead. That notwithstanding, Schwarzenegger was interested, and things came together.

It’d be a different kind of project for Arnie too, which seemed part of the appeal. The film’s concept after all sees Satan visiting New York City at the end of the century in the search for a new bride. Schwarzenegger’s Jericho thus stands in the way of the devil. True Lies 2 this was not, and it was quite a gamble.

Yet it wouldn’t be an easy production. Not just because of the ticking clock, but also because there was a director problem that tightened the timeframe still further.

Marcus Nispel had been hired to direct the film, and he’d shot to prominence off the back of a catalogue of music videos in particular that had earned rich acclaim. Thus, he was hired by Universal to make End Of Days his feature debut. But in August 1998, the Hollywood trades got hold of a 64-page document he’d written to cover his music video shoots. It’s probably best you read about it than I try to explain, but the key part of the story here was that the ‘manifesto’ as such was leaked and very widely read.

Despite a firm denial from Nispel’s reps that the ‘manifesto’ was new (as Entertainment Weekly noted, ‘the document was written mainly by an assistant and was several years old anyway’), he quickly departed the $100m picture just weeks before the start of production. “Artistic differences” were cited.

Nispel, to be clear, has since gone on to direct several features, including Conan The Barbarian, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Pathfinder.

Yet with Nispel departing, here’s where all concerned were boxed into a corner. Ordinarily, some time would be built in to accommodate having to change a major part of a film’s personnel jigsaw. Yet here, delaying the movie was a flat-out no-no, as the release date would have ended up shifting into early 2000. That’s not a good look for a movie star-led end of the millennium thriller, that was set to be sold as such.

Instead, a new, reliable director needed to be found. Many names were thrown around – Guillermo del Toro at one stage was said to be in the mix (although that was feasibly pre-Nispel’s hiring) – but availability was going to be an issue, as well as coming up with a helmer Arnie would sign off on.

By October, that search was concluded, and a safer pair of hands was found.

Peter Hyams – who’d had a productive 1990s making the likes of Timecop, Stay Tuned (a hugely underrated film, that), Sudden Death and The Relic – was available, and swiftly hired. He didn’t have much time to get his feet under the metaphorical table, but Universal needed a director who could get the film done, and to schedule. Hyams very much fitted the bill.

What swung the decision in his favour was said to be James Cameron. That Cameron put in a call to Schwarzenegger to recommend him, and then also called Hyams up directly. In particular in Cameron’s eye was Hyams’ strength with night shoots, of which End Of Days had many.

Filming finally began at the start of November, and would run through to May the following year. Nervous Universal executives went to the set to check that Schwarzenegger was still up to the rigours of filming an expansive action movie. He was, and there would be no quarrel on that front.

What’s more, the film would indeed hit its incredible tight deadline, albeit not quite to the standard that Schwarzenegger for one was looking for. Whilst the film was not without its admirers, it wouldn’t be the glorious ride back to the top of the box office that Arnie wanted and his career arguably needed. It didn’t help that there were divisions over how the film should end, for instance, and Schwarzenegger would say in retrospect that Hyams wasn’t the right person for the job (it’s a pretty damning interview he gave to AintItCool, here).

Still, the film was no flop, just not an old-style Arnie-style monster hit. It mustered $66m in the US, a further $150m or so outside America, and the $100m production yielded $212m worldwide. Yet whilst it was a riskier venture for Schwarzenegger, it arguably marked the moment where his box office powers had notably waned. After all, whilst Eraser and Batman & Robin are shy of too many fans, both cleared $100m at the US box office. This was his first action-centric venture since Last Action Hero to fail to do so.

That said, the very fact it got made at all to the deadline it did is some achievement. Schwarzenegger, though, would go back to science fiction for his next movie. But the story of The Sixth Day is one for another time…

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