Howard the Duck (film)
|Howard the Duck|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Willard Huyck|
|Produced by||Gloria Katz
Robert Latham Brown
|Written by||Gloria Katz
|Based on||Howard the Duck
by Steve Gerber
|Music by||John Barry
Thomas Dolby (Songs)
|Cinematography||Richard H. Kline|
|Editing by||Michael Chandler
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Running time||111 minutes|
Howard the Duck is a 1986 American science fiction comedy film directed by Willard Huyck and starring Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, and Jeffrey Jones. Produced by Gloria Katz and George Lucas, the screenplay was originally intended to be an animated film based on the Marvel comic book of the same name, but the film adaptation became live action due to a contractual obligation. Although there had been several TV adaptations of Marvel characters during the preceding 21 years, this was the first attempt at a theatrical release since the Captain America serial of 1944.
Lucas proposed adapting the surrealist comic book following the production of American Graffiti. After stepping down as the president of Lucasfilm to focus on producing he chose to begin production on the film personally. Following multiple production difficulties and mixed response to test screenings, Howard the Duck was released in theaters on August 1, 1986. The film both received extremely negative reviews and became a box office failure and in later years has been widely acknowledged as one of the worst films ever made. Contemporary critics focused on the decision to shoot the film in live action rather than as an animated film and the appearance of Howard as primary obstacles to the movie's success. More recent commentators tend to focus on issues with the script.
Twenty-seven-year-old Howard lives on Duckworld, a planet similar to Earth but inhabited by anthropomorphic ducks. One night, as he reads the latest issue of Playduck Magazine, his armchair begins to quake violently and propels him out of his apartment building and into outer space, where he eventually ends up on Earth, in Cleveland, Ohio. Upon arriving, Howard encounters a girl being attacked by thugs and decides to help her out with his unique brand of Chinese martial arts, "Quack Fu". After the thugs scamper, the girl introduces herself as Beverly, and decides to take Howard to her apartment and let him spend the night. The next day, Beverly takes Howard to a supposed-scientist by the name of Phil Blumburtt, who Beverly hopes can help Howard return to his world. After Phil is revealed to be only a lab assistant, Howard resigns himself to life on Earth and rejects Beverly's aid. With the help of a no-nonsense secretary, he soon lands a job cleaning up at a local romantic spa. Due to unfair treatment by his boss, Howard ultimately quits his job and returns to Beverly, who plays in a band called Cherry Bomb. At the club where Cherry Bomb is performing, Howard comes across the group's sleazy manager, Ginger, and confronts him when he reveals that he's been withholding the band's money and badmouths Beverly. A fight ensues in which Howard is victorious, and he then forces the manager to hand over the band's money and release Cherry Bomb from their unfair contract.
Howard rejoins Beverly backstage after the band's performance, gives the band their money and accompanies Beverly back to her apartment, where Beverly chooses Howard to be Cherry Bomb's new manager. The two begin to flirt and joke at the idea of sexual intercourse, but are interrupted when Blumburtt and two of his colleagues, Dr. Walter Jenning and Carter, arrive and reveal how Howard came to Earth; Scientists had been working on a dimensional-jumping device that just happened to be aimed at Howard's universe and brought him to Earth accidentally. They believe they can send Howard back through a reversal of the process, so they all agree to visit the lab with the intention of sending him back. As they arrive at the lab the laser is malfunctioning again, this time causing Jenning's body to be taken over by an alien from "the Nexus of Sominus". Because the malfunctioning laser exploded someone has called the police, who arrive during the resulting chaos. Since Howard seems out of place (they believe him to be in a costume) the police decide Howard must be to blame and try to arrest him. Howard, Beverly and Jenning escape in Jenning's truck while Jenning begins a slow physical transformation into the alien he says is inside of him as the police pursue them.
They decide to visit a "Cajun sushi diner" where Jenning introduces himself as "the Dark Overlord of the Universe" and demonstrates his supernatural powers by causing a bottle of ketchup and a bottle of mustard to break. Howard is rude to the waitress, causing a group of truckers to insult him, leading to another fight. The entire diner then decides to cook Howard. They overwhelm him, carrying him into the kitchen and tying him to a table. The Dark Overlord then uses his powers to destroy the diner, freeing Howard. Deciding he will invade Earth, the Dark Overlord kidnaps Beverly, escaping in a semi truck. As she protests he explains he will need human hosts for his army.
On his own for the moment, Howard soon finds Phil and frees him from the police. The next section of the movie is an extended chase scene in which the two steal an ultralight aircraft, which they fly along roads searching for Beverly while the police remain in hot pursuit.
Back at the lab, the Dark Overlord ties Beverly to a desk and puts her under the laser, saying he'll transfer another one of its kind into her body with the laser. Howard and Phil return to the lab and find a "neutron disintegrator" the lab had been testing for the military. When they shoot him with the weapon, the Dark Overlord is forced from Jenning's body; neither are harmed. The Dark Overlord turns out to be a monstrous scorpion-like creature with human-like face and arms. Howard fires the neutron disintegrator again, obliterating the Dark Overlord, but there are already more Dark Overlords on their way to Earth. Howard is forced to decide between letting Earth's invasion take place while he returns home or destroy the laser, which would strand him on Earth. Howard chooses to destroy the laser, banishing the Dark Overlords back to their own dimension.
Remaining on Earth, Howard chooses to become the manager of the band for Beverly. He hires Phil as a crew member for the band during their tour. A large rock concert is shown where Howard is invited up on stage with Beverly's band and is shown playing guitar with them.
- Chip Zien as the voice of Howard the Duck
- Lea Thompson as Beverly Switzler
- Tim Robbins as Phil Blumburtt
- Jeffrey Jones as Dr. Walter Jenning
- David Paymer as Larry
- Paul Guilfoyle as Lieutenant Welker
- Liz Sagal as Ronette
- Dominique Davalos as Cal
- Holly Robinson as K.C.
- Tommy Swerdlow as Ginger Moss
- Richard Edson as Ritchie
- Miles Chapin as Carter
- Paul Comi as Dr. Chapin
- Richard McGonagle as First cop
- Virginia Capers as Cora Mae
- Miguel Sandoval as Bar entertainment supervisor
- Sheldon Feldner as Hot tub spa owner
- William Hall as Officer Hanson
- Thomas Dolby as Rock club bartender
- Richard Kiley as Voice of The Cosmos
- Debbie Lee Carrington as Voice of Additional Ducks
- Brian Steele as Voice of Dark Overlord of the Universe (uncredited)
- Actors portraying Howard
- Ed Gale
- Tim Rose
- Steve Sleap
- Peter Baird
- Mary Wells
- Lisa Sturz
- Jordan Prentice
George Lucas attended film school with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who later co-wrote American Graffiti with Lucas. After the film's production concluded, Lucas told Huyck and Katz about the comic book Howard the Duck, primarily written by Steve Gerber, describing the series as being "very funny" and praising its elements of film noir and absurdism. In 1984, Lucas relinquished his presidency of Lucasfilm to focus on producing films. According to the documentary A Look Back at Howard the Duck, Huyck, Katz and Lucas began to seriously consider adapting Howard the Duck as a film, and met with Gerber to discuss the project. Steve Gerber's account differs slightly; he recalls that at the time he was approached to discuss the film, Lucas was not yet involved with the project.
The film was optioned by Universal Studios. According to Marvin Antonowsky, "Sidney [Sheinberg] lobbied very hard for Howard the Duck", because the studio had passed on previous projects that Lucas was involved in, which had been very successful. Sheinberg denied any involvement in Howard the Duck, claiming that he never read the screenplay. Huyck and Katz strongly felt that the film should be animated. Because Universal needed a film for a summer release, Lucas suggested that the film could be produced in live action, with special effects created by Industrial Light & Magic.
Production designer Peter Jamison and director of photography Richard Kline were hired in order to give the film a look similar to that of a color comic book. Throughout the shoot, Huyck shot multiple segments establishing Duckworld, designed by Jamison. Howard's apartment is filled with detailed props, including books and magazines featuring duck-oriented puns. Because Lucas often worked with dwarf actors, he was able to hire a number of extras to work on these sequences.
The Ultralight sequence was difficult to shoot, requiring intense coordination and actors Tim Robbins and Ed Gale to actually fly the plane. The location scout was stumped for a location for the Ultralight sequence; after she described what she was looking for, a telephone repairman working in her office in San Francisco suggested Petaluma for the scene. Because of the limited shooting time, a third unit was hired to speed up the filming process. The climax was shot in a naval installation in San Francisco, where conditions were cold throughout the shoot. The film cost an estimated $36 million to produce.
Though Gerber's schedule generally prevented him from being present during shooting, he chose to miss the deadline on the first issue of The Spectre so that he could watch the final day of shooting.
Huyck and Katz began to develop ideas for the film. Early on in the production, it was decided that the personality of the character would be changed from that of the comics, in which Howard was rude and obnoxious, in order to make the character nicer. Gerber read over the script and offered his comments and suggestions. In addition, Hyuck and Katz met with Gerber to discuss a horror sequence that they were having difficulty with.
During the screenwriting process, a stronger emphasis was placed on special effects, rather than satire and story. Overall, the tone of the film is in diametric opposition to the comics. Whereas Katz declared that "It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience... We're supposed to have fun with this concept, but for some reason reviewers weren't able to get over that problem." Gerber declared that the comic book series' was an existental joke, stating "'This is no joke!' There it is. The cosmic giggle. The funniest gag in the universe. That life's most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view. Anyone who doesn't believe this probably cannot enjoy reading Howard the Duck." However, after shooting was finished, Gerber stated that he felt the film was faithful to both the spirit of the comic book and the characters of Howard and Beverly.
An early proposed storyline involved the character being transported to Hawaii. Huyck states that this storyline was considered because "we thought it would be sort of fun to shoot there". According to Katz, they did not want to explain how Howard arrived on Earth initially, but later rewrote the screenplay so that the film would begin on Howard's home world. Huyck and Katz wanted to incorporate both lighter, humorous elements and darker, suspenseful elements. Katz states that some readers were confused by the sexual elements of the screenplay, as they were unsure as to whether the film was intended for adults or children. Huyck and Katz wrote the ending leaving the story open for a sequel, which was never produced.
The film was originally intended to be animated based on the character created by Steve Gerber and quoting scripts by Bill Mantlo. In particular, the "Duckworld" story of Howard the Duck magazine #6 was to serve as a basis for the script. A contractual obligation required Lucas to provide a distributor with a live action film, so he decided to make the film using live actors and to use special effects for Howard.
The script significantly altered the personality of the title character, played the story straight instead of as a satire, removed the surrealist elements, and added supernatural elements that could highlight special effects work done by Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic. The adapted version of the main character is an alien named Howard who lives on a planet populated by anthropomorphic ducks that evolved from birds instead of primates. His world is almost identical to Earth but is filled with bird-related visual puns. Howard is transported to Earth by an accident involving an experimental laser. He arrives on Earth near a punk rock club, where he meets Beverly (the only other character from the original comics). As Howard attempts to find a way to return to his planet, he helps Beverly in her singing career, develops a romance with her, then saves humanity from a scientist who is possessed by an alien.
The film itself was adapted into comic book format by writer Danny Fingeroth and artist Kyle Baker for Marvel Comics. The adaptation appeared in both Marvel Super Special #41 and in a three-issue limited series.
Lucasfilm built animatronic suits, costumes and puppets for the film. Because of the limited preparation time, varied "ducks" created for the film would explode or lose feathers, and multiple ducks were built with the wrong proportions. On the first day of shooting, the crew realized the poor quality of the effects when they found that the inside of the puppet's neck was visible when its mouth opened. Huyck repeatedly reshot scenes involving Howard as the animatronics were improved. Because multiple puppeteers were in charge of controlling different parts of the animatronic body, Huyck was unable to coordinate the shoot properly. In the opening sequence, Howard's chair is propelled out of his apartment by wires, which were later digitally erased by computer, an effect that was uncommon in 1986. The effect of the feathers on Howard's head becoming erect during the love sequence took months to prepare.
The voice of Howard, Chip Zien, was not cast until after shooting completed. Because Ed Gale's voice was difficult to hear when he wore his suit, Huyck ordered Gale to perform his scenes without speaking any of the required dialogue, which was later synchronized during the editing process. Lead puppeteer Tim Rose was given a microphone attached to a small speaker, which would allow Rose to speak the dialogue in order to help the actors respond to Howard's dialogue. While wearing his suit, Gale could only see through Howard's mouth, and had to sense his location without proper eyesight. Gale often had to walk backwards before beginning rehearsals. In between takes, a hair dryer was stuffed in Howard's bill in order to keep Gale cool. Gale taped two of his fingers together in order to wear the three-fingered hands created for the Howard costume. A total of six actors gave physical performances as Howard.
Gerber was impressed by the appearance of Howard, and commented, "It was very bizarre to meet it and ... realize not just that I created it - that would have been bizarre enough... you know, it was sort of like meeting a child I didn't know I had ..."
Makeup artists Tom Burman and Bari Dreiband-Burman and actor Jeffrey Jones discussed the appearance of the Dark Overlord character with Huyck and Katz, and developed the character's progressing looks. When Katz's daughter visited the set during the shoot, she was terrified by Jones' appearance in makeup. The diner sequence combines practical effects, including squibs and air cannons, with visual effects created by ILM. Sound designer Ben Burtt created the voice of the Dark Overlord by altering Jeffrey Jones' voice as his character transformed. Stop motion effects during the climax were designed by Phil Tippett, who began with a clay model before upgrading to more sophisticated pieces.
After auditioning a number of actresses, singers and models for the role of Beverly, Lea Thompson was cast in the role, because of her appearance in Back to the Future. Thompson purchased clothing from thrift stores because she wanted to appear at the audition as "a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper." During the shoot, Thompson complained that the filmmakers chose to shoot Howard's closeup before hers. Thompson also states that she regrets not wearing a wig, as her hairstyle took two hours a day to prepare. Jeffrey Jones was cast because of his performance in Amadeus. Although Tim Robbins had not appeared in many films, Huyck and Katz were confident that he was right for the part.
In order to play the physical role of Howard, Huyck and Katz held casting calls with dwarf actors, eventually casting a child actor and hiring Ed Gale, who had been rejected because he was too tall for the role, to perform stunts and portray the role during evening shoots. The child actor found the shooting conditions to be too difficult to handle, and the film's editors were unable to match day and evening sequences because of the difference in the two portrayals. Because Gale also served as an understudy, he took over the role.
After the film was completed, Huyck and Katz auditioned John Cusack and Martin Short for the voice of Howard, eventually casting Chip Zien, because they felt his gravelly voice worked well for the part. Because Howard's voice was not cast until the film had begun editing, synchronization was extremely difficult.
The film's score was written by John Barry. Thomas Dolby wrote the film's songs, and chose the members of Cherry Bomb. Actress Lea Thompson performed her own singing for the role, although she states that the filmmakers were unsure as to whether they would keep her vocals in the final film. Thompson was required to learn choreography with the band and record the songs so that they could be synchronized during filming. The final sequence, in which Cherry Bomb performs the film's title song, was shot in front of a live audience in an auditorium in San Francisco. The song was co-written by Dolby and George Clinton. Gale was choreographed to dance and play guitar as Howard. Dolby built a special guitar for Gale to rehearse and film with.
Howard the Duck received overwhelmingly negative reviews from film critics. Orange Coast Magazine writer Marc Weinberg and Leonard Maltin criticized the decision to shoot the film in live action. Maltin described the film as a "hopeless mess ... a gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache". The appearance of Howard was criticized as being unconvincing due to his poorly functioning mouth, drunkenness, pervertedness, and expressionless face. Reviewers also criticized the acting and humor and found the film boring. In The Psychotronic Video Guide, Michael Weldon described the reactions to Howard as being inconsistent, and that "It was obviously made in LA and suffers from long, boring chase scenes", but praised the stop-motion special effects in the film's final sequences. Film website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of critics, gives the film a score of 15% based on 32 reviews, which makes it the lowest-rated Lucasfilm production. The site's consensus states: "While it has its moments, Howard the Duck suffers from an uneven tone and mediocre performances." The film received seven Golden Raspberry Award nominations in 1987 including Worst Supporting Actor (Tim Robbins), Worst Director and Worst Original Song ("Howard the Duck"). It won four trophies for Worst Screenplay, Worst New Star ("the six guys and gals in the duck suit"), Worst Visual Effects, and Worst Picture, tied with Under the Cherry Moon. The movie won also a Stinkers Bad Movie Awards for Worst Picture.
The film was a box office disappointment, grossing $16,295,774 in the United States and $21,667,000 worldwide for a total of $37,962,774, just under $1 million above the production budget. When the film was screened for Universal, Katz said that the studio's executives left without commenting on the film. Screenings for test audiences were met with mixed response. Rumors suggested that Universal production heads Frank Price and Sidney Sheinberg engaged in a fistfight after arguing over who was to blame for green-lighting the film. Both executives denied the rumors. News reports speculated that one or both would be fired by MCA chairman Lew Wasserman. Price soon left the studio, and was succeeded by Tom Pollack. The September 17, 1986 issue of Variety attributed Price's departure to the failure of the film, even though he had not approved the film's production. Following the film's failure, Huyck and Katz left for Hawaii and refused to read reviews of the film. In 2014, the LA Times listed the film as one of the costliest box office flops of all time.
The negative reaction to the film had a difficult effect on the cast, who found themselves unable to work on other projects because of the film. However, Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins have had successful acting careers since then, with Robbins even winning an Academy Award for his performance in 2003's Mystic River.
According to Ed Gale, he was hired to work on Spaceballs because Mel Brooks had said, "Anybody who's in Howard the Duck can be in my movie." Gale also said he receives more fan mail for his Howard the Duck portrayal than for his Chucky performances, the antagonist in the Child's Play horror film series. After the film's release, Huyck and Katz chose to work on more dramatic projects in order to separate themselves from Howard the Duck. Katz said Lucas continued to support the film after its failure, because he felt it would later be seen in a better light than it had been at the time of its release. Huyck said he later encountered fans and supporters of the film who felt that it had been unfairly treated by critics.
In June 2012, the Marvel YouTube series Marvel Super Heroes: What The--?! featured an episode starring Howard the Duck complaining to Marvel that his movie was not given a special Blu-ray re-release to celebrate its 25th anniversary. He eventually gets Joe Quesada to try and appeal to, and bribe, George Lucas into supporting the re-release.
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- Huyck, Willard; Katz, Gloria (2009). A Look Back at Howard the Duck (documentary) (DVD). Universal Home Video. ISBN 025195052306 Check
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|isbn=value (help).) (DVD). Universal Home Video.
- Tom, Stempel (2000). "Alumni". Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film. Syracuse University Press. p. 207. ISBN 0-8156-0654-0.
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- Mediascene #25.
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- Marvel Super Special #41 at the Grand Comics Database
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|isbn=value (help).) (DVD). Universal Home Video.
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|isbn=value (help).) (DVD). Universal Home Video.
- Stanley, John (2000). Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Movie Guide. Berkley Boulevard Books. p. 253. ISBN 0-425-17517-0. "For one, the duck costume and makeup are phony — Howard looks like a midget in a Halloween costume."
- Hunter, Lew (2004). "Nothing in the Mind, Please". Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434: The Industry's Premier Teacher Reveals the Secrets of the Successful Screenplay. Perigee. p. 21. ISBN 0-399-52986-1. "Because we all know what a duck looks like, Lucas could not get an audience to suspend their belief that Howard was a little person in a duck suit."
- Weinberg, Marc (1986-9). "Out-Foxed". Orange Coast Magazine 12 (9): 143–144.
- Maltin, Leonard (2008). "H". Leonard Maltin's 2009 Movie Guide. Penguin Group. p. 641. ISBN 0-452-28978-5.
- Weldon, Michael (1996). "H". The Psychotronic Video Guide. 0312131496. p. 277. ISBN 0-312-13149-6.
- "Howard the Duck (1986)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 6, 2009.
- "1986 9th Hastings Bad Cinema Society Stinkers Awards". Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2006-10-17. Retrieved April 2, 2013.
- Eller, Claudia,"The costliest box office flops of all time", Los Angeles Times (January 15, 2014)
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- Howard the Duck at LucasFilm.com
- Howard the Duck at the Internet Movie Database
- Howard the Duck at Box Office Mojo
- Howard the Duck at Rotten Tomatoes
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