Steel: About The Production

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Entertainment industry powerhouse Quincy Jones and his partner at QDE (Quincy-David Salzman Entertainment), David Salzman, had been fans of the DC Comics character Steel since it had appeared in the comic book canon. Beyond the enjoyment of reading the gritty adventures of an army metallurgist-turned-crimefighter, Jones found a more personal reason for the character's significance. Jones notes, "I have seven children and, as a parent, I'm really aware of the lack of role models for today's kids. It's really left a hole in the world, and I don't mean just for black kids. Their perspective on the future has changed for the worse, and I hate seeing young people who don't believe in the future. Steel -- and I don't want to use that word 'superhero,' because he doesn't fly or anything like that -- represents a role model. Let's just call him a 'super human being.'"

Jones' company was more than interested in bringing Steel to the screen, but it wasn't until Shaquille O'Neal showed up for a meeting that the project began to gel. The seven-foot, one-inch starting center for the Los Angeles Lakers was leafing through a comic book that he had brought with him -- a copy of Steel.

Recalls O'Neal, "I always used to joke that DC Comics had stolen my likeness. But when Warner Bros. came to me to do an action movie, I said, 'Let's do this movie right here.' I was very definite about it. I don't read a lot of comics, but when I saw this big black dude with a loop earring -- well, like I said, he does look like me."

O'Neal, in addition to wanting to breathe life into Steel, had his own recollections about having few childhood ideals to emulate. "When I was growing up, they really didn't have any African-American role models. They did have the Hulk, but he was green."

Not Exactly the Hulk

When Kenneth Johnson was initially contacted about writing and directing a film based on a DC Comics' character, he shrugged. He had been offered to helm projects based on comic book-originated characters before based on his success with "The Bionic Woman," "Alien Nation" and "The Incredible Hulk." "I always turned them down," recalls Johnson, "because I didn't want to deal with childish characters in funny costumes. [Producer] Joel Simon told me that Steel was different, that he was really a knight in shining armor in a contemporary setting. I said that if I could lose the comic book cape, then maybe I could make it work."

Johnson took the character of Steel from the comic book and surrounded him with protagonists and enemies of Johnson's own invention. He also sought a little help with the urban aspects of the dialog -- Johnson took a copy of the script to South Central Los Angeles and spent a day with a group of kids to ensure that the language of some of the characters rang true.

Arranging the shooting schedule, however, presented its own problems. O'Neal was committed to play in the Summer Olympics, take a break and then fly to Hawaii to train at the Lakers' camp. This left the director with a five-week window to complete filming all scenes with his star, a formidable task.

Johnson remembers, "We had one read-through with Shaq before he headed off to the Olympics. I dispatched an acting coach friend of mine, Ben Martin, to Atlanta to work with Shaq between basketball games while I was prepping the movie in Los Angeles. When he got back, the rest of the cast assembled to rehearse wherever and whenever we could. We discovered that Shaq was a natural, he was really into his character, and he not only knew his lines, but everyone else's as well."

In shaping the script, the director was always conscious of both his star's and his title character's personas -- a "blue-collar Batman," in Johnson's view -- and kept a strong emphasis on teamwork and family, values echoed by the movie's star. O'Neal says, "My family has always been around me and kept me motivated. Not the money, not the cars, not the life. As long as I can go home and hear my family say, 'You're doing well, we love you and we're proud of you,' then I know I'm doing all right."

To fill the open slots on "Steel"'s team, Johnson assembled a varied cast with both seasoned veterans and exciting newcomers. Judd Nelson was brought in for the role of Nathaniel Burke, an original member of John Henry Iron's military research team who becomes his adversary on the streets of Los Angeles. Annabeth Gish was cast as Lt. Sparks, the electronics expert who serves, via computer and the web, as Steel's eyes and ears. Richard Roundtree, still known to many as Shaft, filled the role of Uncle Joe, who motivates John Henry to fight fire with fire and creates Steel's headquarters amidst his junkyard sculptures. Irma P. Hall and Ray J helped complete the cast as John Henry's energetic Grandma Odessa and his wise-cracking little brother, Martin.

The strong sense of teamwork evident in his professional sports career was something that Shaquille O'Neal brought with him to the set of "Steel." The director recalls that, on the first day of shooting, lights needed to be adjusted around Gish while she was incapacitated in a hospital bed; rather than take a break and leave his co-star, O'Neal said, "I'll stay here, too, with my teammate."

Notes Johnson, "Shaq has been such a team player all of his life that making a movie was the same kind of thing. He is just a player in another game."

Just as integral as the cast to the story was the hand-wrought suit of armor that transforms the gentle pacifist into the crimefighting alter-ego Steel. Before cameras rolled, filmmakers were working to create a costume based in reality that would look believable and yet invincible. "I wanted it to look homemade and realistic, but it couldn't be larger-than-life," says Johnson. "John Henry is a regular guy who has the abilities -- with a little help from his friends -- to work with metals and to fabricate a suit of armor that is virtually impregnable to known weaponry. We had to make it look like something a guy could really make with his own skills."

A full-body cast of O'Neal was taken. The actor stood motionless for more than an hour, breathing through straws in his nose while the rubber casting dried. Costumers and production crew then worked in tandem, sculpting the suit pieces out of clay onto a mold of O'Neal. As the suit went though various permutations, several materials were tried (metals, fiberglass) before settling on polyurethane foam, a suit actually intended to be used only for stunt work. The resulting 'armor' satisfied both the look of the character and the physical requirements of filming. After it was completed, with all of its pieces and layering, the suit took three costumers one hour to transform John Henry into Steel.

The script, the star, the cast and crew, the suit -- "Steel" was ready to forge ahead.

Hot Summer Nights

The production moved into principal photography with a sense of urgency as palpable as the humidity in the summer air. "We all knew we had a deadline and that there were no options concerning it," says Johnson. "Shaq knew it and kept saying, 'Don't worry, we'll get it done.' After a couple of days, I knew Shaq was right. He's a 24-year-old athlete who recognizes the fact that he is a role model and wants it maintained throughout the film. The character of John Henry is a very self-effacing, modest and humble guy. I wrote him that way because I knew that's what Shaq is and that's what he was really going to be able to embrace and play."

The tight filming schedule consisted of 51 days with 32 full nights of shooting in downtown Los Angeles. The first few days of production were fairly easy: Echo Park Lake, an East Los Angeles neighborhood and the inside of Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk doubling as a veterans' hospital. From there, the production moved to the Saugus Motion Picture Ranch for the shooting of the opening military sequences. Following work at Saugus, the remainder and bulk of the shooting took place on location in and around Los Angeles.

Location scouts turned up a multitude of Los Angeles-area and downtown locations that would serve the script: the main Los Angeles Public Library became the Federal Reserve Bank with a façade front that is blown out by thugs using sonic weaponry; Pershing Square was the scene of a gunfight which included a car chase; a vacant downtown lot overlooking Los Angeles became Uncle Joe's junkyard and Steel's headquarters; the downtown Dos Carlos Stages became Grandma Odessa's house and the location of Irons' initial confrontation with the police; and the Alhambra Foundry, operating since 1923, became Crowley Metal Fabrication, where Irons gets a job after he leaves the military. Other sites used included Zoo Drive in Griffith Park, Union Station, the Department of Public Social Services building, the 444 Plaza, the Oviatt Building and Al's Bar on South Hewitt Street. "Steel" also made motion picture history by being the last film to shoot at the Southern Pacific Railyard in the City of Industry; the new owners of the yard found filming too disruptive for business.

Writer/director Kenneth Johnson found that his cast was incredibly enthusiastic -- perhaps, in one particular case, a little too enthusiastic, as Shaquille O'Neal was zealous about performing his own stunts.

"I told him, 'Look, Shaq, I'll double you.' And he looked at me and said, 'No, Kenny, I want to do my own stunts.' We didn't let him do them all, but he did his share. There's one point when we drop a fiery helicopter and it lands about three feet behind him while he's lying on the ground. You should have seen the look on his managers' faces. They said, 'Are you really going to drop a burning helicopter on him?'"

"It was one take, boom, perfect. When the scene was over, Shaq yelled, 'Wait, I'm all right I'm the Man of Steel,' pointing to a tattoo on his arm. Then we have these scenes in a railroad yard at night with John Henry running across tracks and dodging moving railroad cars that were missing him only by inches. Again, it was Shaq in action. Though it was all carefully coordinated and rehearsed by our stunt coordinators, Jim Arnett and Jon Epstein, we were all holding our breath until the scenes were over."

Even amid the night shoots, daunting stunts and 'assembly-required' costumes, filmmakers never lost sight of the heart of "Steel" or the goal of the motion picture -- to connect with and inspire the young viewers in the audience. One special group had particular meaning for the director. Comments Johnson, "Because of the accident she experienced in the military, Lt. Sparks uses a wheelchair to get around. For this film, we have a line of action figurines that includes Lt. Sparks, and the doll is in a wheelchair. This will not only give children in similar situations a toy and a role model of their own, but it has the ability to raise the consciousness of kids and adults who are not physically challenged."

The magic of connecting with children was never very far from Shaquille O'Neal's mind, either. Johnson recalls, "During shoots downtown, you could find Shaq on his lunch break shooting basketball with the kids at a neighborhood court. He would also find the nearest school and take a bunch of toys to the school children. My first assistant had her six-year-old daughter on the set, and Shaq noticed her playing with a toy gecko. He asked her if she had any real ones and she said that she didn't. An hour later, there was a terrarium with two geckos waiting in her mom's trailer. For a long time after that, all of the crew were walking around with toy cars, saying, 'Look, Shaq, have you seen my toy Ferrari?'"

During many of the night shoots on the streets of Los Angeles, crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the NBA superstar in the shiny suit, as he posed for pictures and signed autographs when the costume didn't get in the way. Says O'Neal, "I'm somewhat used to working at night during the basketball season. Many times during the season we would fly to the next city after a game, so going to bed when the sun came up wasn't that unusual."

Johnson recalls one way the crew relaxed between the explosions, flying cars and endless nights: "We had a band. I'm a drummer, our director of photography, Mark Irwin, is a great jazz guitarist and key grip Chuck Smallwood plays bass. A couple of others would sit in on keyboards and stuff. So, wherever we shot, the big decision always was, where's the band going to set up? Shaq sat in, too, on drums and keyboard. His feet are so big that he thoroughly trashed my bass pedal, so I bought a new one -- it's an old drum set. When Shaq found out about the pedal, he wanted to buy me a whole new drum set. It took everything I had to convince him not to."

O'Neal's musical abilities (one platinum and one gold album thus far) found their way onto the final soundtrack for the film as well. He is a featured rapper, along with KRS-One, Ice Cube, B-Real and Peter Gunz, on the debut single from the film, "Men Of Steel," which was produced by Trackmasters and also boasts a verse written by Shaq. The soundtrack, on Quincy Jones' Qwest Records, is comprised of original songs from the film as well as tracks inspired by "Steel" and features hip-hop and R&B artists Mobb Deep, Tevin Campbell, Az Yet, Montell Jordan, Jon B., BLACKstreet, Maria Christina and Gina Breedlove.

The Sun Also Rises. . . Finally

When the final days of shooting were completed, Johnson and his crew all felt that the experience had proved to be. . .well, like summer camp, only with explosives.

"It was also wonderful how quickly the cast and crew became family," adds Johnson. "And most of that was due to Shaq. He's a real up-front, wonderful human being with a heart as big as his body and with a tremendous amount of integrity."

The actor himself completed his last day of shooting at 7:30 in the morning and by 9:00 a.m., he was on a plane bound for Hawaii and the Lakers' training camp.

Johnson concludes, "John Henry Irons is basically a pacifist. Though he's been in the Army, he still prefers to settle an argument with words rather than a weapon. As Steel, it's the same. He would rather have the other guy put down his weapon instead of having a conflict. After spending several months with Shaq, it's difficult to separate the character of Steel from the person I know. Shaq is that combination. He is so easygoing until he puts on that uniform -- basketball or otherwise."

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