'Cool Runnings': An oral history

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

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FILMING

The bobsled training might have been the most physically exhausting part of the process, but it wasn’t the film’s greatest challenge. Rather, Disney was having constant debates about the use of Jamaican accents in the film.

TURTELTAUB: I remember almost being fired by Jeffrey Katzenberg because he couldn’t understand the Jamaican accents, and he told me that unless I got the guys to speak English like Sebastian the crab from Little Mermaid, I’ll basically never work at Disney ever again.

LEON: We were getting constant notes from Disney about our accents, that we were being too authentic Jamaican and we needed to have it be clearer. The note that I got – I’ll never forget this – was that they wanted to liken me to a black Aladdin. And I said, “Aladdin is not Jamaican!” [Laughs] I think we did our absolute best to bridge the gap between what Disney ultimately wanted and get as much a hint of real Jamaican as possible.

DOUG: Most of their notes made no sense. One note made sense but it was ridiculous. They wanted me to sound like Sebastian the crab, which is really more like a Trinidadian accent, it’s kind of sing-songy . So that was a controversy and a challenge. I ended up just having an accent that’s not Jamaiican at all really. Mine is kind of like a Jamaican Jerry Lewis. [Laughs]

YOBA: That for me wasn’t a challenge. I had my Jamaican accent long before I did that film. It was just deciding the consistency between the four of us, and how far we could go. As they would say, “People in Utah may not be able to understand.”

LEWIS: At one point they thought of just letting us have regular accents and just play a lot of Jamaican music. [Laughs]  Sometimes we’d get accused of having too much accent, which I thought was weird. It wasn’t like, “Oh your accent’s bad,” it was like, “Tone that down a little bit, add a little more American in there,” especially my character because supposedly I went to school in America.

OUTERBRIDGE: I was the stereotypical Eastern European. Josef Gruhl was like your East German bad guy, so I did my thickest bad German accent. I didn’t make any effort to try to do a correct German accent. I did my best to find a German accent on a cartoon show and imitate that. [Laughs] I’m sure the Germans who saw the movie were probably very offended by the way I was speaking.

On set, spirits were always high. Despite some weather troubles in Calgary, and the inherent danger that came with filming on a bobsled track — one fall and the crew member would wind up at the bottom of the hill –  the most memorable element of filming Cool Runnings seems to be the time spent together, and most significantly, with the late John Candy.

OUTERBRIDGE: It was a lot of camaraderie, and not just from the Jamaican bobsled team, who were hysterically funny and really really great guys to hang out with, but just amongst the other sledder guys, it was just a lot of fun, which is how it should be when you’re doing a film like that. That may be another one of the reasons why the movie has had such success is that I think that that warmth and I think that that camaraderie really shows through.

YOBA: One of the things that stands out the most to me was when we were in Calgary. Every now and then you’ll be in some random location, generally there’s snow involved, and there’s like one Jamaican with a restaurant somewhere. So this guy who fed the actual bobsled team during the Olympics heard a rumor the Jamaican bobsled team is in town and they’re doing a movie. So he didn’t have all the facts, but he had the food. And he cooked up a bunch of food and drove around for two hours looking for us to feed the Jamaican bobsled team, and then realized it was an actual movie being made about them and not the actual guys, but we got to enjoy the food anyway. I just remember thinking how sweet that was that this man drove around all this time looking for these folks.

TURTELTAUB: I think about being with the four guys nonstop and how much they taught me about directing. And how little they got paid. [Laughs] And how much love and effort they put into it. We all got paid very little. The movie was not expensive, and everyone got, basically, scale to do the movie, but there was so much enthusiasm and love.

LEON: I had rented this great house because I was down in Jamaica all the time and I had my chef with me, so I would have the guys over, and he would cook dinner for everybody at night. I always had the guys over for dinner. It was great. It was fun.

YOBA: The first dinner I remember having was John Candy inviting us all to dinner. He picked up some music that he thought represented each character and gave it to us. I remember thinking that was a classy move. And he had promised to take us salmon fishing in Alaska but unfortunately he passed soon after, so we never got to do that. But we would have dinners together, and we did spend a lot of time together. And the cool thing is, we’re all cool to this day, which is nice.

DOUG: [John Candy] played a song for each one of us that he thought represented the essence of our characters, which I don’t quite remember what my song was. I know it was a Rolling Stones song, but he was just a beautiful dude, the long and short of it, he was a beautiful guy.

LEWIS: John Candy, at one point we were invited to his room  and we were all listening to music, reggae and stuff [Laughs], and he said, “Hey listen, I’m from Canada. I was there. They don’t know what they have on their hands. This thing’s going to be huge.” He said, “But no one gets it because no one gets how big this is going to be.” I remember listening to him and going, “I knew I wasn’t crazy. I feel the same way.” But I didn’t say a lot because I didn’t want to be that guy.

TURTELTAUB: When I think about what it was like to be on the set in Calgary or in Jamaica and laughing with John, that’s as much as any person can ever expect to get out of the phrase “a dream come true.” It was a dream of mine to one day work with John Candy and to have had that much fun and that much success with him was really exciting and really heartbreaking eventually.

OUTERBRIDGE: It was really fantastic to be in [John Candy's] presence. I had one very brief scene with him, and it wasn’t even a scene, it was at the top of the sled hill and I think he had to look up at me and say something to me. But to hang out on set in his presence was really extraordinary. He was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met in this industry, which goes a long way, because there’s a lot of real jerks in this business. For all his fame and everything that he was, he was unbelievably generous, he never got angry. He had a handler who had to step in and pull him away from the fans because he would refuse to stop signing autographs, he would refuse to stop shaking hands, because he really felt that the fans, his audience were who made him. And he had nothing but time for them. Being in that presence, you learn a lot about how you should really behave in this industry.

YOBA: I just remember when we were filming, we had so much fun on set and I remember, particularly with Doug, he’s a funny guy. I just remember how much the crew laughed and how the camera would shake. I just remember that feeling on set like if people are laughing on set that could be an indicator of what’s to come.

THE AFTERMATH

“Cool Runnings” was a Jamaican expression that had already been worked into the script before it became the film’s title. In fact, it wasn’t until filming had wrapped that Turteltaub, Steel, and the Disney marketing department decided the movie would be called Cool Runnings. But once the name was solidified, the cast and crew got to sit back and watch as the film gained a following.

TURTELTAUB: There’s no point in directing a movie if you don’t think what you’re doing is going to be awesome. On the other hand, there was no way that this weirdo movie about Jamaicans and winter sports and being at Disney was ever going to come together in a way that people would see it, and I believed in the movie more than I think Disney did. They didn’t know what to do with the movie until they saw it.

LEON: One things that always stands out to me about Cool Runnings was the first public screening of it. I remember watching the movie for the first time, and I’ll never forget when they get to the point, “Where are these people from?” the whole audience stood up, “Jamaica!” And they weren’t even Jamaican! I remember thinking, if I got these white people thinking they’re Jamaican in here, this movie plays well. [Laughs] 

TURTELTAUB: Your first test screening [is] when you know whether you’re the only person on earth who likes the movie or if an audience is going to join you. And our first test screening went so shockingly well with people screaming and shouting back at the screen, and cheering, and standing up and the depth and the quantity of laughter, we knew we had touched a chord.

DOUG: The opening night of the movie, I went with the producers to a theater, and it wasn’t packed. It was kind of like the faithful few. There was just a way that people were reacting and responding to the movie that I thought, “This is going to be one of those word-of-mouth things.” I told them, “This is going to be at the top of the box office,” and it was. As a matter of fact it was unusual because I think it was second at the box office and then the next week it went up as opposed to down, so it was a word-of-mouth thing.

LEWIS: I actually knew it was going to be big when I was filming it. As a matter of fact, I remember in one of my first interviews, I specifically said, “I think it’s going to do about 60 to 70 million in the U.S. but it’s going to do better overseas,. It’s going to do about 100 [million].” I remember the guys goes, “100? Wow you’re confident.” At the time that’s exactly what happened. I was pretty close to nailing it.

DOUG: I always get sucked in by the whole world slowly clapping. It always gets me. Actually when I saw that at the premiere, I cried and I was so shocked because I was like, “I know! I was in this! I knew this was going to happen why am I not prepared for it?” [Laughs]

YOBA: When it first came out, I loved it. I paid to go see it at the movie theater. I took a girl on a date — classy move. [Laughs] I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I have kids now so it’s great and my kids watch it and they get a kick out of it.

LEON: One of the things that happened to me with the film as a father is my daughter goes to school, she’s in fifth grade, she walks into class and they say, “This is a different kind of lesson today. We’re going to watch a movie, and we’re going to discuss the movie in class.” So lights go off, the movie comes on, and the first part of the movie is just all me. So as soon as the movie starts, she said the entire class looks at her. She felt so weird she said. But it was great because they loved it and she said she never imagined that her dad’s movie would be for a lesson being taught in school.

LEWIS: Sometimes I forget I’m in it. I get caught up into the story, and I think that’s a great testament to the movie. I remember turning it on and watching the scene where we’re all carrying the bobsled and my character’s dad’s there and he opens his shirt and he’s now supporting his son and the team, and I got a little teary-eyed, I hate to say. I was like, “Aw, his dad showed up.” And then I’m like, “Wait, that’s you, you idiot.” [Laughs] But that’s how powerful the story is, I actually forgot. I wasn’t watching my acting or anything, I was just watching an interesting story.

OUTERBRIDGE: By the way, there’s no way in the world you could pick up one of those bobsleds like that and carry it. Those things weigh a ton.  [Laughs]

Now, 20 years later, what is Cool Runnings‘ legacy?

TURTELTAUB: [The film's legacy is] the notion that not only can David beat Goliath but he can have a great time doing it. And that your sense of humor and your ability to laugh is a weapon that you have that not enough people use. For us, the movie was about dignity. And with all of its silliness, dignity is at the heart of every scene of that movie. Somehow, with all the silliness, the dignity comes through in the film and I think that’s one of the reasons it ended up coming out the way it did.

LEON: Everyone can relate to a fish-out-of-water story. Everyone can imagine what it’s like to be the only one of your kind some place. That is something that universally everyone identifies with. Then it’s also the message about pride, pride in your country and who you are and about working hard to achieve the things you want.

YOBA: Hope is the word. I think that the movie’s just really hopeful, and it’s really funny. And it’s an evergreen. Each generation can enjoy it with a fresh perspective. When I saw my kids get into it, that was the cutest thing. And then there are kids younger than my kids now that love that movie.

DOUG: I think it’s survived because it does say something about human beings on many levels. It talks about their potential to ostracize and alienate people for arbitrary reasons but it also talks about the redemptive aspects of being human, which has to do with recognizing and appreciating people’s resilience and recognizing your own resilience. Jamaica’s like a metaphor for coming from any place that’s considered small or insignificant and it definitely touches people from all over the world and I was shocked how many people all over the world feel small. [Laughs] But it’s true! So it’s a universal thing.

OUTERBRIDGE: I think it’s the consummate underdog film, and I think that anybody out there who’s been told that what you’re doing is ridiculous, or you can’t do what you want to do, it represents that. Even if you don’t take the Disney version of the actual events and you just look at the true story, it’s extraordinary, what happened. And it says to anybody that the most unlikely people can actually end up doing the thing that nobody thought they could do. I think that message is loud and clear, whether you look at the true story or you look at the Disney version, the theme remains the same which is don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it if its’ something that you really really want to do.

RAWLE: The Jamaicans, even what they’re doing now, they’re saying to people who have a dream to definitely pursue your dream. It’s your right to have a dream, and it’s not a fairytale, it’s a fruition, and you should go for it. And I think that this movie captures that. And also it captures teamwork. Be yourself and be proud of that and follow your dream, as corny as it may sound. It’s something that I’m proud of, and I’m glad I was able to be a part of it and that it’s out there around the world. I’m glad I can go to Brussels and get free French fries because someone likes Cool Runnings. [Laughs]

As for what’s next for the cast, you can catch Outerbridge in season 2 of Orphan Black, while Lewis is in the upcoming film Hybrids (and also on stage as a stand-up comedian). Yoba is currently on stage in New York in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Leon stars in the upcoming film And Then There Was You, in addition to his work with his band, Leon and the Peoples. Doug, who is still in possession of the (rubber!) lucky egg, can be seen next in the film The Wannabe, as well as on The Doug Life Show on Dish Network.

Meanwhile, for Turteltaub, a third National Treasure is on the horizon, but for now, “I’ve got my eyes glued to the Sochi Olympics to see if there’s a Cool Runnings 2 to be made,” he said with a chuckle.

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