Nostalgia is a funny thing. So often films reappear revived and celebrated as the classics they most surely aren’t, a sad indictment of the wistful reminiscence that afflicts us all into adulthood. Yet to attribute the emergence of The Goonies as the bona fide cult classic it has become to such a sentiment would be a gross disservice. Originally conceived by Steven Spielberg as a vehicle for his new production company, Amblin Entertainment, this buccaneering quest of adolescent friends searching for the buried treasure of a mysterious pirate named One-Eyed Willy is, quite simply, pre-teen fun at its very best. For all its Indiana Jones thrills and spills and Scooby-Doo inspired plot, the real secret to the prolonged success of a movie fast approaching its twentieth anniversary rests more with its wisecracking lead characters than its shiver-yer-timbers action. As the film’s director Richard Donner acknowledged at the time of shooting, “The picture is the kids.”
Turing the cute and boisterous into genuinely funny characters would not, however, be plain sailing for the normally effervescent Donner. “I think the unique thing about working with the kids on this picture is that every night I’m contemplating suicide,” he joked in 1985. “Individually, they’re wonderful, the warmest little things that have come into my life. But in composite form you get them together and it’s mind-blowing.”
While the rambunctious Goonies cast may have left him on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a dynamic bond was nonetheless formed between the veteran filmmaker and his youthful ensemble, a bond crucial in understanding the film’s success and longevity. “He’d get mad when we were goofing around sometimes,” laughs Sean Astin, the leader of the gang. “But while he was screaming his lungs out we’d play a joke on him, like squirting him with water or something. Then it would be hard for him to be mad because he’d be laughing too much.”
Steven Spielberg dictated the story for The Goonies to his protégé Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter) in early 1984, and charged the young writer/director with the responsibility of writing its screenplay. Throughout the eighties, Spielberg had enthusiastically invested in the talents of those whom he felt shared his creative sensibilities, offering the emerging Joe Dante the opportunity to direct Gremlins, and encouraging Robert Zemeckis to helm his self-penned Back to the Future. It was perhaps because of Zemeckis’ commitment to the iconic time travel flick that Spielberg, in his capacity as executive producer, turned to Donner for The Goonies - thus acquiring the services of a filmmaker who had already proved his own blockbuster credentials with the hits The Omen and Superman during the late seventies.
Once Donner signed, the casting for the picture began in earnest. Both Donner and Spielberg spend hundreds of hours auditioning thousands of eager young hopefuls, constantly searching for the unique blend of innocence and precocity on which the entire production would rest. Even for directors with such established track records, it was a burden of not inconsiderable pressure (after all, Donner had been the man who cast Christopher Reeve as Superman), and in order to relieve some of the anxiety, Spielberg decreed that two actors whom he had prior experience of working would be offered lead roles. Thirteen-year-old Corey Feldman was first to be cast as the wisecracking Mouth, having previously appearing in Gremlins, and Ke Huy Quan was similarly cast as the technical whiz Data - fresh from his turn as Short Round in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.
The role of Mikey, the asthma-afflicted leader of the Goonies who dreams of saving his parents from bankruptcy (and saving his home from the clutches of the ruthless property developers) proved more difficult to cast. After much intense auditioning, the filmmakers offered the part to Sean Astin, who despite acting since the age of nine had never appeared in a feature film before, let alone a lead role. However, Astin confessed years later to accepting the part only because Spielberg had told him that he would get to kiss the girl at the end of the movie (he was also at the time pursuing a part in Joe Dante’s much-hyped Explorers). Perversely, this element of the script would be altered during shooting, resulting in Mikey’s screen brother Brand (Josh Brolin) replacing him as the romantic lead. Astin still received his kiss thanks to the darkness of the caves though, rumbled by the bemused Andy only due to the braces on his teeth.
Despite hailing from an acting family, 17-year-old Brolin (now the stepson of Barbra Streisand) had never performed professionally until The Goonies. But after improvising audition scenes with Donner using general dialogue from the script, he was offered the role immediately. At a mere 11-years-old, Jeff Cohen became the youngest of all the actors cast for the film when he was offered the scene-stealing role of Chunk, an overweight kid with a penchant for the odd white lie (“Okay Mikey, Michael Jackson didn’t come over to my house to use the bathroom... but his sister did!”). Chunk’s ritual humiliation was to perform the degrading ‘truffle shuffle’ for his pals (while at college and after the film’s original release, Cohen decided run for class president - the successful campaign slogan for which was ‘Chunk for President’). Once these core roles were allocated, Kerri Green was cast as the flame-haired love interest Andy, and Martha Plimpton as her sidekick Stef. The more experienced Anne Ramsey, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano and John Matuszak were cast as the villainous Fratellis, the family of bumbling bad guys also in pursuit of the golden doubloons.
Filming began in the autumn of 1984 in a small west coast town of Astoria, Oregon. Donner did not allow the young actors to see a complete script throughout the entire production, and scheduled the five-month shoot so that each scene was filmed in chronological order - helping his young performers to convey the most natural reaction possible to each outrageous stunt or comedy set piece.
Wanting rain for their sleepy suburban town, Donner and Spielberg were delighted when the weather obliged - often raining six days of the week to provide a grey, muddy and cold environment for all involved. Despite the weather, the cast and crew were enjoying being part of such a fun movie production that, for most, resembled more a family vacation than gruelling film shoot.
Although intense in its workload, the entire production adopted somewhat carnival atmosphere, designed to invigorate and motivate its young cast and enable their natural energy to be translated into crackling movie scenes. Donner encouraged crewmembers to adorn Goonies paraphernalia after his own lead - the larger than life director was rarely seen on set without his Goonies cap and jacket. Of course the Goonies themselves, having the most fun was perhaps Josh Brolin, obviously revelling in his newfound status as movie sex symbol. “The teenage ladies were just flocking to the hotel,” recalled Donner. “I’ll tell you, we couldn’t keep them away from him.”
After a month in Astoria, the cast and crew wrapped and relocated to Burbank studios in California, where the majority of filming would take place. Michael Riva’s elaborate sets for the film’s underground sequences dominated four separate stages across the legendary studio complex - and for the wonder-lusting cast, each day’s action was like visiting Disney World to test out new rides. What was to truly lend the production its magic, however, was Donner’s insistence that the child cast be entrusted to improvise and ad-lib their roles. “They came up with great ideas and I was the first to listen,” revealed Donner. “We had a tremendous amount of improvisation... once they were able to get into the characters and become a tightly knit group, they were wonderful. They just started to be those people. There were a few times when things just didn’t seem to be working. If it wasn’t happening for them instinctively, then I knew it was wrong.”
“Donner was incredible,” recalled Brolin. “He was a strong, dominating force on set, which I liked a lot, but he also encouraged us to improvise. He knew exactly what he wanted but he let us do what we felt like doing within those guidelines.” In the end, such was the spontaneous nature of the shoot that the finished film contained multiple original jokes created between the young actors themselves.
If improvisation was proving a delight for its director and principal performers, it was less so for its weary editor Michael Kahn, who was struggling to achieve continuity amongst all the fun. Donner’s uniquely vivacious directorial style of talking over the actors during a take, chattering instructions and encouraging the cast to ad-lib over one another, made it unusually difficult for an editor to cut around. Kahn, who replaced the British editor and long time Donner collaborator Stuart Baird for the film, would telephone his professional counterpart in desperation, screaming “Get me off this picture!”
Craig Reardon and Thomas R Burman’s elaborate makeup designs for the deformed monster Sloth also provided many a talking point on-set, the finished creation was a face that only a mother could love. Played by ex-sportsman turned actor John Matuszak, the entire makeup process took five hours each day to create, with Sloth’s left eye movement and ears operated by a hidden remote control device. In addition, the torturous five-hour affair would have to be repeated from scratch if the actor were to ever get wet, a fact with which Brolin and co would cruelly hold Matuszak to ransom throughout. Also causing a stir at the studio were the intermittent visits from Michael Jackson throughout shooting, the pop star eager to drop by in his free time to catch his friend Spielberg’s latest production. At the end of filming, Jackson presented an enchanted cast with concert tickets for the Jackson 5 Victory tour show at the Dodgers Stadium, much to their obvious delight.
As the production wore on, however, many observers noted the discreet and unspoken tension building between Donner and Spielberg. The Goonies was a personal project of Spielberg, and one in which - despite his aspirations to move into ‘grown-up’ filmmaking (see The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun) - he intended to retain a great deal of creative input. “I think it was a difficult time because it’s very difficult to have a producer on the show who’s also a director,” remembers Stuart Baird, Donner’s friend and colleague. “And I think Dick allowed Spielberg to shoot a lot of second until stuff. He had known Spielberg for a long time - I think he’d been kind to him [Spielberg] when he had been a kid, letting him come on a stage and watch shoots of the TV shows and stuff, and they had always talked about working with each other - but I would imagine it wasn’t the warmest or easiest of collaborations.”
The two men could often be seen in deep discussions on-set, Donner tense and pensive, arms crossed defensively, as his young executive producer gestured animatedly. Donner himself acknowledged, “Spielberg is looking over my shoulder the whole time,” before retreating diplomatically, “which I happen to love because he’s the biggest kid of them all and comes up with the best ideas.”
As filming entered its final six weeks, the entire production was buoyed by the commencement of shooting on the great pirate ship, a full scale replica model created by Michael Riva and housed in Burbank’s largest studio stage. These scenes were the source of much excitement and anticipation - with Riva’s mock up one of the most impressive and daunting creations ever to grace the famous studio. After filming had wrapped, Donner attempted - without success - to pursue numerous theme parks across the US to accept the ship as an attraction. Sadly, come the production’s end, the set piece was scrapped.
As had been his approach through the entire shoot, Donner aimed to get only the most natural response from his new stars, and went to great lengths to do so for the movie’s climatic scenes. “I never let the kids see the boat. They were banned from the stage from day one, from the start of its construction. The day they were supposed to come out of the shoot and hit the water, turn around and see the boat for the first time, I brought them all in with their backs to the camera. They all knew what they were going to see, but they had no idea what it was going to look like. And so on film when they turn around and see the boat for the first, it’s their actual reactions.”
With filming complete, Donner and Spielberg hosted a huge Goonies party. The director joked with the kids, insisting that he never wanted to see them again. Little did Donner realise that - with a little help from Spielberg - the kids themselves were to have the last laugh. After the wrap party the director departed for his house in Hawaii, determined to relax after a relentless shoot. The mischievous Spielberg, however, had other plans. He booked the entire child cast onto a private plane - complete with parents and guardians on tow - so that just as Donner had begun to relax on the beach at his holiday home, the entire rabble appeared on the horizon screaming, “Hi Dick! We’ve come to visit you!”
On its theatrical release The Goonies was a financial success, if not the spectacular hit expected (it never reached number one at the US box office), and opened to mixed reviews. Few had forgotten Spielberg’s controversial hands-on producing style with Toby Hooper’s Poltergeist and many assumed (wrongly) that Donner had provided, at best, only nominal creative input throughout.
With hindsight, The Goonies today remains every bit as valuable as One-Eyed Willy’s treasure, due largely to Donner’s unpretentious direction and unique brand of energy and enthusiasm. Full of cracking dialogue (the kids cuss, swear and insult each other’s mothers in a fashion that only kids can make endearing), slapstick humour and goodies and baddies so clearly defined that you literally want to boo and cheer along with your youthful exuberance, the film bristles with the careful blend of naivety and knowingness typical of all Donner’s films.
“I never saw it as a fantasy or a fairytale,” he waxes. “It’s a true story [that] we just happen to be documenting the lives of a group of kids in a little town known as Astoria, and the kids call themselves the Goonies.” It is impossible not to find such innocent and enthusiasm infectious, and in today’s age of convoluted plots and distracting CGI effects, it is difficult to find such as simplistic approach to filming the fantastic anything other than refreshing.
Speaking of his most recent release, Timeline, Donner confirms that little has changed in his outlook. “There are few computer graphics in the movie, because I felt it made a major difference for the actors to actually feel the walls they lived in.”
That The Goonies continues to build upon it’s dedicated following - and forces the inner child in all of us to wilfully holler such glorious lines as “That’s what I said, Booty Traps!” or “I smell ice cream” 18 years after its release, is largely testament to the skill of its often undervalued director. An outsider with a wondrous imagination and thirst for adventure, perhaps Richard Donner himself was the biggest Goonies of them all.
Typed by Kaz xx.