A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Bird On A Wire (1990) – 30th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “I just took a shower with a cockroach from hell. He’s in there right now doing his hair”. A 30th anniversary celebration of “Bird On A Wire”. John Badham, hot off his success of “WarGames” and “Short Circuit”, directs two of the biggest stars at the height of their careers. Filmed while John Badham’s “The Hard Way”, was postponed until star Michael J Fox was available. The script for “Bird On A Wire” was said to be coursing with life, very entertaining and castable. Originally meant for Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. It’s an homage to Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest”, featuring a cross country chase, action set pieces, all ending in a big climax set inside an indoor zoo, that was constructed at a cost of $1.3 million. With established chase scenes and a witty script. After 30 years we’ve seen this formula many times, but it’s hard not to admit that it’s still a fun flick, that’s glued together by Mel and Goldie’s sparkling on-screen chemistry.

Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars at the height of his career in the 80’s and 90’s and a sex symbol in Hollywood. Famous for his tough-guy roles as police detective in the ”Lethal Weapon” films, a policeman in an apocalyptic world and a cocaine dealer in ”Tequila Sunrise”. Gibson at the time of release, was said that he was making his debut in comedy with 1990’s “Bird On A Wire”. If you look at his role in the first two “Lethal Weapon” films as Martin Riggs, “Bird On A Wire” isn’t really his first dabble into comedy.  “Lethal Weapon” is just a harder edged action comedy, compared to the lighter “Bird On A Wire”. 

”Mel has this playful, cutup of the sixth grade side to his character; and now he has a chance to show it on the screen,” said the producer, Rob Cohen. ”He’s truly a clown; he does magic tricks, tells jokes and is a delightfully funny man very different from the dark, saturnine characters he has played up to now. This will be a nice surprise for the audience because he’s still sexy, the dreamboat and all that, but he has this chance to play different accents and make jokes”. 

During an interview on the set, Gibson said he agreed to do the film because he liked its ”lightness.” But he had insisted that he wasn’t making ”no big switch” to comedy. ”It needs the same kind of precision as you’d use in any kind of acting, but it is a change to do something my kids can go and see,” he said.

As for Goldie Hawn, she had already established herself as a comedic actress by fully showing her capabilities in films like: “Shampoo”, “Foul Play”, “Private Benjamin”, “Wildcats” and “Overboard”. She had already found the love of her life in actor Kurt Russell and had even earned herself an Oscar win, for best supporting actress in 1969’s “Cactus Flower” opposite Walter Matthau. 

“Bird On A Wire” was her first mix of action and romantic comedy. For Goldie Hawn, the film is more than an action comedy. She was intrigued by the story, which has her character re-meeting, for the first time in many years, a one-time lover. ”How many times in life do you find someone again with whom you’ve been madly in love years ago?” Hawn said in a publicity interview. ”Haven’t all of us wondered how we’d respond; would it still work; would we be in love all over again?”.

Mel Gibson plays Rick Jarmin, a man in the FBI’s witness protection who finds himself on the run, when the criminal he testified against (played by David Carradine) is set free. Every time he picks a new name and a new life, discovery threatens his life. His latest alias collapses when he encounters a former girlfriend, Marianne Graves (Goldie Hawn), now a hotshot lawyer who thought her one-time lover was long dead. Together again, the couple flee the bad guys in a cross-country chase that required filming in about 50 different locations.

Rob Cohen who has established himself as one of the leading producers in Hollywood. Producing “The Wiz”, “Light Of Day”, “The Witches Of Eastwick”, “The Running Man” and “The Monster Squad”. His first major studio film as director came three years after “Bird On A Wire”, with the Bruce Lee biopic “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” and moving on to films like “Daylight”, “The Fast and The Furious” and the third film in the Brendan Fraser “Mummy” trilogy. 

Director of “Bird On A Wire”, John Badham in my opinion is one of the most overlooked filmmakers. Always labeling his films in the non traditional way as A John Badham Movie, instead of film or picture like most filmmakers. Badham’s breakthrough credit was the box office smash “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), other hits on his resume include “Blue Thunder” (1983), “WarGames” (1983), “Short Circuit” (1986), “Stakeout” (1987) and it’s sequel “Another Stakeout”. 

“Bird on a Wire” came about when producer Rob Cohen and director, John Badham, had found themselves with time on their hands. They had lined up Michael J. Fox for an action comedy called ”The Hard Way”, but Fox wasn’t available for a year; so the film was postponed when Universal opted to shoot the sequels to “Back to the Future” back to back. Cohen and Badham didn’t want to sit idle while they waited for star Michael J Fox. That’s when Rob Cohen said “So we called Universal and said, ‘What have you got that’s a draft or so away?”.

What Universal had claimed to be “a draft away” from being ready to go before the camera. Badham added “What we got was this ‘Bird on a Wire’ script that was very interesting but needed a lot of work”. Cohen and Badham, turned immediately for help to the writer David Seltzer (”Punchline”). ”David gave us 50 pages in a few weeks, and when John and I read them, we were jumping up and down,” said Rob Cohen. ”It was coursing with life, very entertaining and castable”.

Originally the film was supposed to star Kurt Russell opposite his real-life partner Goldie Hawn. However, Russell had already committed to star alongside Sylvester Stallone in “Tango & Cash”, which was filming at the same time but released several months before. Russell suggested that director John Badham ask his “Tequila Sunrise” co-star Mel Gibson if he would be interested

To get Gibson for the film, his final negotiating point to convince Mel Gibson to do this film was the offer of a use of a producer’s house for the summer, allowing him to shoot the film and give his large family an excellent summer vacation home. “It’s the first time that John and I went after two big stars and got them both without showing the script to anyone else”, said Cohen. ”We talked to Mel when he was shooting ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ and listened to what he wanted out of life and kept hearing comedy”.

”We wanted Goldie because she’s so light and funny and does comedy, while Mel, at this point, doesn’t mean that to an audience. The idea of these two people having been lovers 15 years ago and reuniting them seemed to make sense. This is a romantic comedy action film, a cross-genre film”. Badham commented, “Mel in combination with Goldie has such wonderful appeal. One actor gives you charm, masculinity and sexuality, and the other promises comedy. And it has worked that way”.

Goldie actually did most of her own stunts, after being convinced by Mel Gibson to do so. She was originally reluctant to perform them, fearing the harsh and overwhelming nature of the tasks. She was eventually so pleased with her stunt performances that she kept her stuntman’s jacket after filming resumed, and as still exhibits it next to her Oscar statuette.

Nearly all of the movie was shot in British Columbia, although it’s supposed to take place in the United States, in cities as Detroit, St. Louis, and Racine, Wisconsin. The movie takes its name from the Leonard Cohen song whose lyrics included ”like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I’ve tried in my way to be free”. The song was re-recorded by The Neville Brothers for the movie. 

Principal photography was scheduled to begin April 15th 1989 in Canada, with a budget of $20 million. It was scheduled to wrap in mid July of 1989. The films big climax set inside an indoor zoo, was constructed at a cost of $1.3 million. Animal trainers worked with tigers, jaguars, baboons, monkeys, alligators and what seemed to be every bird in the Amazon basin. Pools of piranhas (both real and robots) were readied for a particular scene. A three story high waterfall was turned on and off like a faucet. 

Simulated gunshots crackled amid the vines, orchids and moss-hung trees. “I’ve had more than one nightmare about being eaten by a tiger,” giggled Hawn. ”But, seriously, it’s scary. When I watched my double fall 25 feet down a rock, I burst into tears I was so worried for her”. But to the veteran character actor David Carradine (“Kung Fu”), who plays one of the villains, this film was almost relaxing. ”I like being a bad guy, but it’s too easy,” he said. ”Basically, you just come in, fire your gun, kick a few people and smoke cigars”. 

The gigantic zoo set measured 83 feet wide by 350 feet long and was almost six stories high. It was the largest studio set ever built in Vancouver. It was constructed at the Bridge Studios in Vancouver, Canada. Two watering crews were employed to water all the plants in the rainforest on a full-time basis, right throughout the zoo shoot. 

The walls of the cages of the zoo set were made of just plaster, so the production had to be especially careful that animals, like the tigers, did not put a foot through any of the plaster-set walls. Three kinds of sand were brought in for the zoo set. This included 16 truckloads that were transported from Oregon. The three sand types were mixed together, and then sifted three times, so as to filter out and remove any glass particles that could possibly hurt any of the big cats’ paws. The mixed sand was on the concrete floors of the animal cages, which were cushioned with four inches of the sand, so as to protect the big cats’ paws.

There were two major bridges that spanned the rainforest’s central 60 foot crevasse. Both of them were more than three stories high. The main suspension bridge had to be engineered and reinforced, to be able to withstand crew and equipment weighing 1,200 pounds. Also three waterfalls were constructed in the rainforest set, with the largest of them being about three stories high. This waterfall, and its two companion waterfalls, according to the film’s production notes, were the first ever built on a sound stage in Canada.

Director John Badham has said of working with wild animals on this movie: “No animals are easy to direct. They don’t read the script. It’s kind of like controlled chaos, you have to be really ready to catch something exciting that may happen, and you have to be ready to deal with things that are dangerous, because these are wild animals, and they will hurt you”. 

Production designer Philip Harrison said that it was “a once in a lifetime undertaking”. Producer Rob Cohen has said of this movie: “There have been other films with car chases, helicopters, motorcycle rides through impossibly narrow alleys, rooftop escapes, etc. But this picture’s specialty was the zoo climax and the difficulty of shooting it”.

“Bird On A Wire” debuted at the #1 spot at the US box office in 1990, and went on to gross over $138.6 million worldwide off a $20 million budget.

The inspiration for “Bird On A Wire” is clearly inspired by the cross country chase movies of Alfred Hitchcock. “Bird On A Wire” is a more romantic and comedic version of “North By Northwest”. While “Bird On A Wire”, has established chase scenes, action sequences and a witty script. It’s all obviously glued together by Mel and Goldie and their sparkling on-screen chemistry. As routine as “Bird On A Wire” is and while we’ve seen so many copycats since. Mel and Goldie is special on their own, as an on-screen team they are one of the memorable duos. After 30 years it’s still a fun flick. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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