The Rocketeer is a 1991 film period adventure film distributed by Walt Disney Pictures in the USA, and by Touchstone Pictures internationally, and based on the character of the same name created by comic book writer/artist Dave Stevens, who also served as a co-producer. Directed by Joe Johnston, the film stars Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino and Tiny Ron Taylor. Set in 1938 Los Angeles, California, The Rocketeer tells the story of stunt pilot Cliff Secord who discovers a jet pack that enables him to fly. His heroic deeds attract the attention of Howard Hughes and the FBI, as well as sadistic Nazi operatives.
Development for The Rocketeer started as far back as 1983, when Stevens sold the film rights. Steve Miner and William Dear considered directing The Rocketeer before Johnston, a fan of the comic book, signed on. Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo had creative differences with Disney, which caused the film to languish in development hell. The studio also intended to change the trademark helmet design — Disney President Michael Eisner wanted a straight NASA-type helmet — but Johnston convinced the studio otherwise. Johnston also had to convince Disney to let him cast unknown actor Billy Campbell in the lead role. Filming for The Rocketeer lasted from September 19, 1990 to January 22, 1991. The visual effect sequences were created and designed by Industrial Light & Magic. The film was released on June 21, 1991 and bombed at the box-office, but received generally favorable reviews from critics. Plans for Rocketeer sequels were abandoned after the poor box office performance.
Los Angeles, California: In 1938, a rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes is stolen from his factory by members of mobster Eddie Valentine's gang, who are pursued by FBI agents to an airfield, where they are caught. Stunt pilot Cliff Secord and mechanic A. "Peevy" Peabody, whose Gee Bee racer was fatally damaged by the mobsters, find the mysterious rocket inside a biplane of their employer's hangar, where the getaway driver hid it. Cliff experiments with it, but Peevy persuades him to leave the rocket alone until he can understand its design and fine-tune it. Meanwhile, Valentine argues with movie star Neville Sinclair, a Nazi secret agent, who had hired Valentine's gang to obtain the rocket from Hughes. Sinclair negotiates a new deal and dispatches the mobsters to search for the missing device.
Shortly afterwards, at an airshow, Cliff uses the rocket (with Peevy's newly designed, face-hiding helmet) to heroically rescue his elderly friend Malcolm piloting a malfunctioned aircraft. Having been seen by the audience, a media sensation ensues, and Cliff, as the anonymous hero, is dubbed "the Rocketeer". However, Cliff and his aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake, begin to have relationship issues after Cliff visits her on-set of a film and inadvertently causes an accident. Jenny is fired over Cliff's accident; however, Sinclair, who is portraying the lead role of the production, overhears Cliff's attempt to tell Jenny about the rocket pack. After Cliff leaves, Sinclair makes up to Jenny and invites her to dinner at the famed South Seas Club. Sinclair then sends his monstrous assistant, Lothar, to search the airfield for Cliff.
Cliff consults with Peevy in their shared home, where Lothar attacks and seizes detailed rocket pack schematics drawn up by Peevy, but they are interrupted by the arrival of the FBI. Cliff and Peevy escape with the rocket, and Lothar also escapes as the house is destroyed by gunfire. Cliff and Peevy arrive at the local diner but are trapped by a team of mobsters who are searching for Cliff, but don't recognize him. Overhearing them consult with Eddie over the diner's phone, Cliff learns of Jenny's date with Sinclair and the latter's involvement with the crime. The diner patrons overpower the mobsters, but a stray ricochet punctures the rocket pack's fuel tank, which Peevy provisionally patches with Cliff's chewing gum. [N 1] Cliff proceeds to and infiltrates the South Seas Club but is nearly trapped by Valentine's gang, and in the ensuing melée, Jenny is kidnapped by Sinclair.
Sinclair tries to seduce Jenny at his villa, but she knocks him out and, trying to escape, discovers that he is a spy. Sinclair recaptures her with Lothar's aid and leaves a message for Cliff: bring the rocket pack to the Griffith Observatory that very night in exchange for Jenny's life. Cliff hides the rocket just before he is arrested by the FBI, who take him to Hughes. Hughes reveals that the rocket was a prototype similar to one Nazi scientists were unsuccessfully developing to invade the United States (as shown in a propaganda film the FBI show Cliff that was smuggled out of Nazi Germany). The FBI agents mention that they are tracking a Nazi spy in Hollywood, whom Cliff realizes to be Sinclair. When Hughes demands the return of the rocket, Cliff explains that he needs it to rescue Jenny; when the FBI protests, Cliff escapes, but inadvertently leaves behind a clue to the location of the exchange.
Recostumed as the Rocketeer, Cliff flies to the rendezvous where Sinclair, Lothar and the Valentine gang are waiting. When Sinclair demands the rocket, Cliff divulges to the gang that the actor is a Nazi spy. Eddie, drawing the line at treason, turns on Sinclair, but Sinclair unexpectedly summons Nazi SA commandos hidden nearby and the gang are held at gunpoint as a Nazi Zeppelin, the Luxembourg, touring America in a "gesture of friendship" but actually secretly assisting the mission, appears overhead. A fight ensues between the Nazis and the FBI agents who have followed Cliff, as well as Eddie and his men, but Sinclair and Lothar escape with Jenny aboard the Zeppelin. Cliff uses the rocket to reach and board the Zeppelin, but during the ensuing showdown Jenny accidentally sets the craft on fire with a flare gun. Sinclair takes the rocket to save himself, but not before Cliff thumbs off the chewing gum patch; with the leaking fuel ignited by the exhaust flame, Sinclair dies crashing down upon the last four giant letters of the "Hollywoodland" sign. Lothar is engulfed in flames as the Zeppelin explodes, but Cliff and Jenny are rescued at the last instant by Hughes and Peevy in an autogyro.
Some time afterwards, Hughes presents Cliff with a brand-new Gee Bee racing aircraft as a compensation for the one he lost at the start of the adventure. As Hughes leaves, Jenny presents Peabody with the rocket blueprints she found in Sinclair's villa. Peabody decides that with some modifications, he can build an even better one.
- Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord
- Jennifer Connelly as Jenny Blake
- Alan Arkin as Peevy
- Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair
- Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes
- Ed Lauter as Fitch
- Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine
- Tiny Ron Taylor as Lothar
- Jon Polito as Bigelow
- William Sanderson as Skeets
- Margo Martindale as Millie
- John Lavachielli as Rusty
- Clint Howard as Mark
- Rick Overton as South Seas Patron
Comic book writer/artist Dave Stevens created the Rocketeer in 1982 and immediately viewed the character as an ideal protagonist for a film adaptation. Steve Miner purchased the film rights from Stevens in 1983 but he strayed too far from the original concept and the rights reverted to Stevens. In 1985, Stevens gave writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo a free option over The Rocketeer rights. Stevens liked that "their ideas for The Rocketeer were heartfelt and affectionate tributes to the 1930s serials with all the right dialogue and atmosphere. Most people would approach my character contemporarily, but Danny and Paul saw them as pre-war mugs."
Stevens, Bilson and De Meo began to consider making The Rocketeer as a low-budget film, shot in black-and-white and funded by independent investors. Their plan was to make the film a complete homage to the Commando Cody serial films, and use a cast largely associated with character actors. However, that same year, the trio approached William Dear to direct/co-write The Rocketeer and they eventually dropped the low-budget idea. Bilson, De Meo and Dear kept the comic book’s basic plot intact but fleshed it out to include a Hollywood setting and a climactic battle against a Nazi Zeppelin. They also tweaked Cliff’s girlfriend to avoid comparisons to Bettie Page (Stevens’ original inspiration), changing her name from Betty to Jenny and her profession from nude model to Hollywood extra (a change also made to make the film more family friendly). Dear proceeded to transform the climax from a submarine into a Zeppelin setpiece.
Stevens, Bilson, De Meo and Dear began to pitch The Rocketeer in 1986 to the film studios but were turned down. "This was 1986, long before Batman or Dick Tracy or anything similar," Stevens explained. "In those days, no studio was interested at all in an expensive comic book movie. We got there about three years too early for our own good!" The Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group eventually accepted The Rocketeer because they believed the film had toyetic potential and appeal for merchandising. The Rocketeer was set to be released by Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures; Stevens, Bilson, De Meo and Dear all signed a contract which would permit them to make a trilogy of Rocketeer movies. However, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg switched the film to a Walt Disney Pictures release. According to Stevens, "immediately, Betty and anything else 'adult' went right out with the bathwater. They really tried to shoehorn it into a kiddie property so they could sell toys. All they really wanted at the end of the day, was the name".
Initially, Disney executives wanted to set the film in contemporary times, out of concern that a period piece might not appeal to a large audience. However, Bilson and DeMeo argued that the success of the Indiana Jones trilogy proved that ticketgoers would enjoy an adventure film set in the 1930s, and the studio finally agreed.
Bilson and DeMeo then submitted their seven-page film treatment to Disney, but the studio put their script through an endless series of revisions. Over five years, Disney fired and rehired Bilson and DeMeo three times. DeMeo explained that "Disney felt that they needed a different approach to the script, which meant bringing in someone else. But those scripts were thrown out and we were always brought back on." They found the studio’s constant tinkering with the screenplay to be a frustrating process as "executives would like previously excised dialogue three months later. Scenes that had been thrown out two years ago were put back in. What was the point?" DeMeo said. One of Bilson and De Meo’s significant revisions to the script over the years was to make Cliff and Jenny’s romance more believable and avoid cliché aspects that would stereotype Jenny as a damsel in distress. The numerous project delays forced Dear drop out as director. Joe Johnston, a fan of the comic book, immediately offered his services as director when he found out Disney owned the film rights. Johnston was quickly hired and pre-production started in early-1990. Disney finally greenlighted The Rocketeer after Bilson and De Meo’s third major rewrite.
The characterization of Neville Sinclair was inspired by movie star Errol Flynn, or rather by the image of Flynn that had been popularized by Charles Higham's unauthorized and fabricated biography of the actor, in which he asserted that Flynn was, among other things, a Nazi spy. The film's Neville Sinclair is, like Higham's Flynn, a movie star known for his work in swashbuckler roles, and who is secretly a Nazi spy. Because Higham's biography of Flynn was not refuted until the late 1980s, the image of Flynn as a closet Nazi remained current all through the arduous process of writing and re-writing the script.
Casting the lead role of Cliff Secord was a struggle for the filmmakers. Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg even had one of the studio's then-staff writers, Karey Kirkpatrick, audition for the part. Kevin Costner and Matthew Modine were the first actors considered for the role. When they both proved to be unavailable, Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Emilio Estevez auditioned for the part. Johnny Depp was Disney’s favorite choice (who would be later picked by Disney again for the Academy Award-nominated role of Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series), while Paxton commented he came "really close" to getting the lead. Vincent D'Onofrio turned down the role and the filmmakers were forced to continue their search.
The decision to cast Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord caused mixed emotions amongst Disney executives. Director Joe Johnston and creator Dave Stevens believed Campbell was perfect for the role, but Disney wanted an A-list actor. Johnston eventually convinced Disney otherwise. Campbell was not familiar with the comic book when he got the part but quickly read it in addition to books on aviation. He also prepared by listening to 1940s period music. The actor had a fear of flying but overcame it with the help of the film’s aerial coordinator, Craig Hosking. To ensure his safety, Campbell was doubled for almost all of the flying sequences in conventional aircraft. Ultimately, a scale model devised by ILM puppeteer Tom St. Amand was used for all the rocket pack scenes.
For the female lead of Cliff's girlfriend Jenny, Sherilyn Fenn, Kelly Preston, Diane Lane and Elizabeth McGovern were considered before Jennifer Connelly was eventually cast. Campbell and Connelly's working relationship eventually led to a romantic coupling, which Johnston found to be a technique for method acting that helped with their on-screen chemistry. For Secord’s sidekick, Peevy, Dave Stevens hoped that Lloyd Bridges would play the part, but Bridges turned it down and Alan Arkin was cast. The part of Neville Sinclair was offered to Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance before Timothy Dalton accepted the role. Lastly, the part of Eddie Valentine was written with Joe Pesci in mind, but he turned down the part, which went to Paul Sorvino.
Remaining cast members included Tiny Ron Taylor as Lothar, Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes, Jon Polito as Otis Bigelow, Ed Lauter as Agent Fitch, Eddie Jones as Malcolm the Mechanic and Robert Miranda as Spanish Johnny. Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens has a cameo as the German test pilot who is killed when the Nazi's version of a rocket backpack explodes during the takeoff sequence.
Principal photography for The Rocketeer lasted from September 19, 1990 to January 22, 1991. Filming at the Griffith Observatory took place in November 1990. The film ended up going 50 days over schedule due to weather and mechanical problems. Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens allied himself with director Joe Johnston and production manager Ian Bryce in an effort to be as heavily involved in the production process as possible and to try and secure as much artistic control as he could from Disney. Disney, in particular, was not enthusiastic with Stevens' involvement. "I was on the set day and night," Stevens reflected, "from pre-production till post-production! And initially, I had to fight to prove that I was there for the benefit of the film, and not for my own ego."
The original production budget was set at $25 million, but rose to $40 million. This happened after Disney became impressed with the dailie; "they realized this was a bigger movie than they were anticipating," Johnston explained, "and they approved overages. It never got completely out of control." An abandoned World War II runway at the Santa Maria, California airport housed the fictional Chaplin Air Field. Additional scenes were shot at Bakersfield. The large hangar built for the movie at the Santa Maria airport was purchased and moved across the field and placed next to the original Minter Field Air museum at the airport. [N 2] Much of the original movie set detail is visible inside, and there is an added library that can be used for researchers. For the air circus scene, 700 Santa Maria extras and 25 vintage aircraft were employed. Aerial coordinator Craig Hosking remarked in an interview, "What makes The Rocketeer so unique was having several one-of-a-kind planes that hadn’t flown in years," including a 1916 Standard biplane and a Bee Model Z racer. The sequence where Cliff rescues Malcolm was adapted shot-for-shot from Stevens' comic book. [N 3] [N 4]
Stevens gave the film's production designer Jim Bissell and his two art directors his entire reference library pertaining to the Rocketeer at that time period, including blueprints for hangars and bleachers, schematics for building the autogyro, photos and drawings of the Bulldog Cafe, [N 5] the field uniforms for the air circus staff, and contacts for locating the vintage aircraft that were to be used. Stevens remembers that they "literally just took the reference and built the sets". Disney originally intended to change the Rocketeer's trademark helmet design completely. President Michael Eisner wanted a straight NASA-type helmet but director Johnston threatened to quit production on The Rocketeer. Disney relented, but only after creating a number of prototype designs that were ultimately rejected by the filmmakers. Stevens asked Johnston for one week to produce a good helmet design. He proceeded to work with sculptor Kent Melton, made a cast of the film's main stuntman's head and brainstormed ideas with the help of his sketches. They produced a helmet that the filmmakers agreed looked appropriate from all angles.
Rick Baker designed the Rondo Hatton-inspired prosthetic makeup designs for the Lothar character, portrayed by Tiny Ron Taylor
The visual effects were designed and created by George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) with Ken Ralston (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Sony Pictures Imageworks founder) serving as the VFX supervisor. Rocketeer director Joe Johnston previously worked as an art director/model maker at ILM before his film directing career took off.[N 6] Johnston's insistence on a realistic flying rocketman led ILM to devise a lifelike Cliff Secord model that was filmed in "stop-motion-animation" coupled with a 18" figurine that was manipulated by hand and in "go-motion" to create "motion-blur." Speeded-up Moviola effects were also used to advantage in the air circus sequence where a combination of live action and stop-motion animation was also employed.[N 7]
The Rocketeer’s attack on the Nazi Zeppelin was filmed near Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, California over four months through pick-ups. Remaining visual effects footage took place at ILM's headquarters in San Rafael and Air Force Base. There, they constructed a 12 ft scale model of the Zeppelin, which was photographed against matte paintings that resembled 1938 Los Angeles for intercutting purposes. The Zeppelin explosion special effect alone cost $400,000.