Adapted from a cult comic book and exec-produced by George Lucas, the 1986 mega-flop was the first standalone movie starring a Marvel character. But with a hot, young cast, state-of-the-art effects and the Star Wars creator on board, just what the hell went wrong? Thirty years on, some of the cast explain how they made one of the most derided films in Hollywood history.
Getting the greenlight
You may think it would have been easy for executives to say no to a £23million movie about a cigar-smoking, womanising humanoid duck who gets transported to Earth and has to defeat an alien monster. After all, the pitch alone sounds utterly ridiculous.
But Steve Gerber’s Marvel comic book was hot property with a hip cachet and the writer-director trumpeting his vision was Willard Huyck, who along with wife and co-writer Gloria Katz had scripted American Graffiti, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and done uncredited work on Star Wars.
And then there was the Lucas connection. The couple were close friends with the Force-wielder who was in the midst of the Indiana Jones franchise. The couple convinced him to come on board as executive producer and Howard was quickly penciled in as one of Universal Pictures’ 1986 summer tentpoles.
Casting a summer blockbuster
Tori Amos auditioned, as did Phoebe Cates, but it was actress Lea Thompson, looking for her next big hit after Back to the Future, who was cast as rock singer Beverly, whose life is interrupted when Howard literally drops into her home city of Cleveland, Ohio.
“It was a very big deal to get that movie,” remembers Thompson. “I got to be a rock star, which was really fun and the comics were kind of iconoclastic. [Co-star Tim Robbins and I] were together for seven months and we had hopes that it was going to be good. But we knew there was a lot of hype. It’s scary when there is a lot of hype about something.”
Then there was Howard. Originally, he was going to be mostly puppet, operated by several crew members. But the filmmakers also needed someone around 2’10” to do some practical suit stuff on-set and cast a young teenager before realizing it wasn’t working out.
Little actor Ed Gale (pictured below) – at 3'4” rejected in his first audition as too tall and then subsequently taken on as a stunt duck – decided to grab his chance. Dressed in the suit, he grabbed a camera and filmed himself being Howard behind one of the trailers. Huyck was impressed.
“After I got cast, I was the only one in the suit,” remembers Gale. “We re-shot a lot of the puppet work. I had a ten-week contract, but I was involved with the film for ten months.”
The difficulties with making Howard come to life
“They had a lot of trouble making the duck work,” says Thompson.
She’s not wrong. Costing £1.5m, Howard was one of the first fully-contained movie suits. “I didn’t have any cables hanging out my foot,” remembers Gale, “I could smoke a cigar. The brain, if you will, was in the butt. It was a technological marvel.”
It was also a logistical nightmare. While Gale operated the body, dozens of puppeteers manipulated endless servos to move Howard’s beak, eyes, tail and head. Not only that, but one of them also stood on set speaking Howard’s lines so that they could match the bill movement to the words.
“They got all obsessed about having you see the words coming out of the lips of the duck,” reveals Thompson. “Like anyone was going to believe it was real.”
She believed they should nix the realism and let a comedian go off. “I remember there was Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Chevy Chase, they could have gotten all those people to do the duck,” admits Thompson.
Instead, when they finally came to record the voice, the actor was forced to speak in the same way as the stand-in on set, so the words matched. First-choice Williams said no and New York theatre actor Chip Zien was cast.
“I auditioned for it a million times,” says Zien (above). “Then the casting director from Universal came backstage at a show I was doing and said: ‘do you have any interest in being the voice of a duck?’ I was like, ‘that’s what you got from this performance?!’”
“It was extremely difficult to loop,” he continues. “We spent every day all day long in this recording studio analysing what the duck would sound like when he fell out of an airplane.”
The voice wasn’t the only problem. Some of the filming took place near a Navy base up near San Francisco. Recalls Gale: “Any time a jet would go by, Howard’s face would go into spasms. Sometimes the mouth would rip. We went through nineteen heads.”
The movie bombs – big-time
As production wore on, rumours began swirling inside Hollywood that the film was a flop of gargantuan proportions. Even Universal became convinced it was a failure.
“I started to get suspicious because there were no screenings,” says Zien. “There was no premiere party.”
Howard The Duck hit cinemas on 1 August, 1986.
“The day the movie opened was the first time I had seen it,” Zien continues. “I paid for my ticket. I went in and was horrified because it was relatively empty. There was no line. By the end of the movie, I was all alone with my friend Roy in the theatre. It was just the two of us sitting there.”
Reviews were stinging, box office was paltry. Most critics panned it as just plain bad, but watching it now, most noticeable is the indecision of the film’s tone: it doesn’t know whether it’s aimed at children or adults. “It was for six thirteen-year-old boys,” laughs Zien.
“It just wasn’t funny,” admits Thompson.
Then, of course, there’s the bestiality. Perhaps the most infamous scene of the film is the one where Beverly finds a condom in Howard’s wallet. There is then the suggestion (thankfully without any visuals) that she wants to have sex with him. “Oddly enough,” says Thompson, “my kids can’t watch the movie. When I’m in bed with the duck, they’re like ‘gross’!”
Howard has since became famous as one of Lucas’ biggest failures. But in retrospect, the amount of his involvement fluctuates according to who you talk to. Lea Thompson says he was a frequent presence on-set who even directed a couple of scenes. Others say he put his name to the film purely as a favour to Huyck and Katz when they worried that a regime change at the studio would put the project into turnaround.
Ultimately, the film earned back half its budget, but the smell of failure stuck. Huyck and Katz felt the sting and have stayed out of the limelight since. Chip Zien starred in ‘United 93’ and still gets Howard memorabilia sent to him backstage when he performs in a play.
“I bought a house thank you,” laughs Gale. “It made me who I am. That’s why if you look at my resume, Howard is prominent.”
“I think it was a brave attempt,” says Thompson. “I would have had a much different career is the movie wasn’t a flop. But then again, if it hadn’t flopped, I wouldn’t have done ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful’ and I wouldn’t have met my husband (director Howard Deutch) and had my beautiful children.”
“Hollywood is littered with flops,” she adds. “It’s kind of awesome to be remembered for a spectacular one.”
Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock, Universal, ArtooDeetoo.net