'Cool Runnings': An oral history

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

Jon Turteltaub first heard the story of the 1988 Olympic Jamaican bobsled team when he was in film school. “We all thought that was both hilarious and sort of indicative of what the Olympics was all about,” Turteltaub said. “In some ways it was looked at as a joke, and in other ways, it was looked at as a very inspiring little anecdote that made the whole Olympics have more character.” Less than five years later, Turteltaub would get a call from his agent about a new opportunity.

Disney was making a film about the Jamaican bobsled team’s story, and Turteltaub was in need of a gig. “I needed a job. This script was just sitting out there, and they weren’t sure whether they were making it or not. My agent sent it to me, and said, ‘Remember when you were the flavor of the month? Your month is over. Do this movie.'” Just like that, Turteltaub agreed to audition for the job, which he would later get. “When I first got the job to do the movie, I called my mother and I told her the big news that I finally got hired by a real movie studio to direct a movie and that I was going to Calgary for two months and then to Jamaica for a month. The first words out of her mouth were, ‘How do you pack for that?’ So that was my welcome to show business.”

Now, more than 20 years later, Turteltaub is not only accustomed to the world of show business, but he’s yet to stop hearing about that Disney film he created all those years ago. And in honor of the 2014 Winter Olympics — and the similar story behind this year’s Jamaican bobsled team, who will start competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics on Sunday — EW is looking back at the 1993 film about the Jamaican team that could. As the saying goes, “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time!”

GETTING STARTED

About a year before Cool Runnings started shooting, producer Dawn Steel was attempting to cast a film called Blue Maaga. It was a more dramatic take on the Jamaican team’s story, and it was the first script that landed in the hands of actors Leon, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba, and Doug. E. Doug, who would end up portraying the beloved bobsled team in the Disney film. It was through casting that film that Steel found many of the elements that eventually came together to create Cool Runnings.

TURTELTAUB, Director: Blue Maaga was a script before I got there. It was more of a heavy journey about a realistic life in the slums of Kingston and taking guys from that sort of background through their journey. There were versions of the script that were pretty heavy and very dramatic, and it started that way. It really wasn’t until the script found its light touch and found its playfulness that it found itself.

MALIK YOBA, Yul Brenner: I went to an open call. I think I was the last person on the last day. I went down there and did some improv. There might have been some other scripted stuff, but I remember my improv being about how I taught Bob Marley how to write music. And two months later, I got a call, “Can you fly to L.A. tomorrow and screen test?”  [That was] back in 91. Then Dawn Steel called me on Christmas Eve of 1991 saying, “Hey they’re not going to make the movie, but I’m going to get this movie made.” They called me back about eight months later and said there’s a new director, we’d like you to come in again. I was pretty indignant because I felt like I had the taste of it and it went away, so I was like, “I’m busy.” [Laughs] And then I was convinced to fly back out to L.A.

LEON, Derice Bannock: The film was scheduled to be done a year before. I got cast and signed on to do the movie, and then they didn’t do the movie. So they had to go ahead and postpone it, and then they brought it back with a new director the following year, and I had to go through the whole casting process again even though I was already cast previously and paid. So I had to go do it again, and did it again and was cast again. This time I did the movie, I actually earned my money. [Laughs]

DOUG E. DOUG, Sanka Coffie: I was sent the [Blue Maaga] script and I was quite frankly bored by it. [Laughs] My family’s from Jamaica and it’s quite an extraordinary story, but a dramatic take on it just didn’t work for me. I met with the director. By the time we got together I think it went into turnaround, so he was just kind of like, “Oh well.” [Laughs] So I thought this Jamaican bobsled movie was dead. Apparently they decided to revisit the idea of a comedy and I was sent the script, read it and then I met with the late, great Dawn Steel and Jon Turteltaub. I actually read for them, that’s where I met Rawle [Lewis] who was the reader at the time, and I didn’t really think much of it. I tried to push my heritage. Like most auditions, I didn’t know if any of that was working. Then I got a call to do a screen test at some undisclosed location. It was really like a hush, hush project.

RAWLE D. LEWIS, Junior Bevil: I was an intern is I guess what you would call me. I was helping them cast the movie. The director and producers were behind me and I was in front of them reading with actors. But with the actors I liked, I’d kind of give them more because I wanted them to book it, but what I didn’t realize was that they started paying attention to me as well. I had no idea. We had to do a table read for all the Disney people. They had the potential cast members lined up, which at the time was people like Jeffrey Wright, and at one point Cuba Gooding Jr. So they had me to the table read which I thought was weird. During the table read, that’s when I started to get suspicious, because the Disney execs were like, “Hey great to meet you.” I was so young and naïve I started to say, “Wait a minute, I’m just a reader.” But I caught myself, and then they had a screen test. I show up with all the papers to read with the other actors. The director goes, “What are you doing?” I go, “I don’t have all the scenes memorized.” And he goes, “No you don’t get it. You’re screen testing.” And that’s how I ended up in the movie.

TURTELTAUB: Jeffrey Wright was one who we got really far down the road with. But it was not just about finding four great guys but guys who made a team and fit in together and how they worked as a team. And that’s what was so crucial to making this cast work, because they didn’t feel like just four individuals, they really had to feel like a group, and it’s like any team you put together, there’s that chemistry that has to be right, and they really found it. Those guys found it within each other. There’s that great scene with Malik and Rawle where Malik is giving him a pep talk in front of the mirror, and that was the audition scene, and Rawle had been playing both of those parts in all the auditions but no one could play that part as good as he did.

YOBA: I wrote the Jamaican bobsled song for my audition. I’ve got some Jamaican roots and just being around Jamaican culture, I knew that every Jamaican has a song in his heart even if he can’t sing or she can’t sing. And when I did the screen test they said, “Okay you guys have just won a race, go! Celebrate!” I pulled the song out and pretended it was an improv, but it was actually pre-written. And then Dawn Steel liked it, and then it ended up in the movie, and then it ended up on the soundtrack, and I ended up getting a record deal as a result of that.

DOUG: We were so distinct in terms of our appearance and our personalities, so that in and of itself was really refreshing, because usually when Hollywood casts black actors, they go for types and types with a stereo on top of it. We were all there represented and I thought, “This is pretty rich.” Then we did the scene where we name the sled, and it was really quite a magical experience, because I remember I immediately felt bonded with the guys. And luckily everybody who I tested with got the role and we all went off to Canada.

Going into the film, Turteltaub was clear with the cast that they were not portraying specific people. The film was based on a true story, but the script was what Turteltaub called “shamefully loose.”

TURTELTAUB: We would never get away today with the changes we made to the true story. Nowadays with the Internet being what it is and everybody having an opinion about your movie like they do now, we never would get away with it. But at the time we just kept refining the true story to make it into a better movie. And shape the character and the tone of it so that it played well as a movie. The feeling is the same. The tone is the same. The ambition is the same. The absurdity was the same. And the main key events were the same.

The history of their coach being a cheater with the American team was a complete fabrication, and that was just a way of building some depth into that movie character. And for a long time we were sticking with the true fact that they had to go first to Austria to qualify for the Olympics, [but] there was no way in that story to have them raise the money to go to Austria and then have them raise the money to go to the Olympics, so we put the qualifying for the Olympics in Calgary itself. The other thing that was also amazing was that Prince Albert of Monaco was hugely instrumental in influencing the Bobsled Federation in allowing the Jamaicans to compete, and we never could find a way to make that work in the movie.

DOUG: I think it was more of getting [the real-life bob sledder’s] essence. I think it was the idea of trying to honor that experience, honor the experience of feeling alienated, wanting to fit in and wanting to just be considered a competitor, seeking legitimacy.

LEON: I wasn’t really playing an actual person. It’s inspired by the story, but the names are different, characters and additional things are different. I’ve met all the bobsledders, but the thing is, the movie is based on that story.

LEWIS: I met some of the guys and talked to them. We were going off of the script, but from talking to the guys, you hear the real deal. The basis of it is that they took the best of that and amplified that.

TURTELTAUB: I wouldn’t want to change anything that would harm the movie in any way. I get really proud when the movie’s still talked about, but what makes me most proud is to see and hear about how much Jamaicans love the movie. That was my number one barometer, that as silly as we may have gotten and as loose with the facts as we may have gotten, did Jamaicans still look at the film with the same amount of pride that they looked at the actual Jamaican bobsled team? And they do.

YOBA: One of the [Jamaican bobsledders] ended up moving to the Bronx, so I’ve run into him in New York sometimes. I actually ran into him in Toronto like two years ago. I was up there filming something and he was living in Toronto.

DOUG: As a matter of fact Leon and I, last year, hung out with one of them, Devon Harris is his name.

The most realistic part of the film ended up being the crash, for which Turteltaub used the actual NBC sports footage from the 1988 Olympics. With it being too dangerous for the crew to actually crash a sled, Turteltaub filmed small close-ups for the scene, but whenever the film zoomed out to show the full crash, viewers will notice that someone in the movie is watching it on a television. But even without a crash sequence, the actors did need some training when it came to running and jumping in a bobsled.

TURTELTAUB: They had to learn how to push; they had to learn how to jump in. But as any bobsledder will tell you, once you jump in, you’re a passenger. You don’t have to bobsled. Only the driver has to know how. And Leon did the most he could to learn how but I think movie insurance prevented him from ever getting a shot at driving one.

LEON: We had to go down and bobsled to see what it was like to be in a bobsled. [It was] very bumpy, very rough. I obviously could never go down in the position I played in the movie because I was the driver, and if I was driving, I doubt anyone would’ve ever gotten in the sled with me. [Laughs]

LEWIS: They only allowed two weeks for that part. I really started to have respect for these guys once we started training to run and jump in. That’s all we had to do. We just had to learn to run and jump in that sled and not look like idiots. I think they were sweating bullets for a while, because we were all over the place. We were slow getting in. I’m sure everyone would like to tell you that we were all badass, but we weren’t. You’re doing this thing where you run on ice so you have these shoes with these little spikes under them, so the other thing is, when you’re running and jumping in the sled, you’re spiking the other guys if you don’t get in there right. Once we were filming, we were okay. I think we were better. I remember us being better at it. There were times when we did it slower than we needed to do, but we had gotten better by then.

DOUG: For me it was terrifying. Even though we weren’t really permitted to go down, there’s a possibility. What if it gets out of control and we have to go down? I was very tense about that. Also there’s a testosterone thing, so there’s no way to let on to one another that you were terrified. They had us in a weight lifting regimen, and we’re training so everybody’s trying to out lift each other, especially Malik, which of course he did. [Laughs] But it was really this male thing of, “Let’s not share too much how harrowing this thing is,” at least for me.

PETER OUTERBRIDGE, Josef Grool: I think we all went to the gym because we knew we would be wearing spandex, but it was never asked of me to make sure I look like a bob sledder. They do have a bob sled run for people to go down, like professional sledders will take you down on a ride and they go down slower and it’s not as dangerous. But that particular year, they were having thaws and freezes and thaws and freezes and the sled hill just wasn’t in good shape, so they wouldn’t let any of us go down and try it out, and that was a bit of a drag.

NEXT: Accent trouble, remembering John Candy, and discussing a sequel


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