Free Willy & Michael Jackson
Every single Michael Jackson Fan knows about “Will You Be There” being on the soundtrack of “Free Willy”. But what we don’t know is that it was not supposed to be. The reason is explained by Director Simon Wincer during an interview for Slash Film.
Here the full story about “Free Willy” and how they saved the movie and managed to get Michael Jackson song on the soundtrack:
Simon Wincer: Interesting story. The script was sent to me by my agent. I read it and told her I loved it. About a month later she rang back and told me they’d decided to go in a different direction. With a younger director who had won Sundance. [thinking] I can’t remember his name, I’m sorry.
Wincer is referring to Robin Armstrong, whose film One Cup of Coffee (later retitled Pastime) was in competition at Sundance in 1991.
Simon Wincer: Anyway, a few months later I was off in Russia of all places, filming an episode of Young Indiana Jones. While I was in the production office I got this message from my agent asking me to call urgently. She said that a job had come back and she needed an immediate answer. So I got her on the phone and she said, “Warner Bros has fired the director on Free Willy and it’s in pre-production.” I was scheduled to go home from Russia to Australia (so I could catch up with my family) before going to Skywalker, but she said, “Can you come back to Los Angeles and meet me at Warner Bros?”
Blake J. Harris: That’s quite a detour.
Simon Wincer: [laughing] Yes, it was. But that’s what I did. And I’m in a room with these producers, it’s 8 o’clock at night and I’ve just flown in from Moscow. We talked about Free Willy and then they showed me—this is 4 weeks before they were scheduled to start shooting—and they showed me about 12 audition tapes of young boys. Kids auditioning for the lead part and they asked which actor I was drawn to. I said, “Jason James Richter.” They said, “Well, would you cast him?” I said, “Yeah, subject to meeting with him first.” By this point, it was like 10 o’clock at night, so they say okay and have him come into the studio the following morning. Lovely little kid, very bright and all that. We walked around the lot and I just chatted to him. He was so perfect. So I went back and said, “Yes, I’ll cast him.” Then they worked out a deal with my agent and said, “Great, you’ve got four weeks.”
Blake J. Harris: Obviously not a lot of time. How do you even get started?
Simon Wincer: What had happened was the younger director had written the script out of existence. The reason they fired him, he was one of those guys who—everybody liked him—but he couldn’t seem to make up his mind. They called him “Seymour” because he always wanted to see more things.
Blake J. Harris: Ha!
Simon Wincer: So I got back with the writers and we sort of managed to, you know, pull the thing into shape. And then I flew down to Mexico where they had this whale in a tank, Keiko, and they were building the set at this theme park (which was closed at the time). Then we flew up to the Pacific Northwest; did a week in scouting, found the major locations and then I had to go home to Australia because I hadn’t seen my kids for a long time. So I took off for about five days, then came back and we cast the rest of the film.
Blake J. Harris: So you guys shot in Mexico and the Pacific Northwest?
Simon Wincer: Yeah, the first six weeks we shot in Mexico and then we went up to the Pacific Northwest. Nobody paid much attention to it because it was a little, reasonably cheap movie. And Dick Donner [the executive producer] was off finishing Lethal Weapon 4 (I think) at the time.
Blake J. Harris: What was the hardest part of filming the movie?
Simon Wincer: Well, the one thing we knew we needed to deliver was the moment where the whale escapes to freedom and leaps over the seawall. We didn’t know how the hell we were going to do that. And we had meeting after bloody meeting after bloody meeting. Because, you know, CGI in those days was pretty primitive. That was the year of Jurassic Park and the first time people had really seen what the potential could be. Eventually we worked out how we could do the thing. And we were able to, you know, pull that moment off.
Blake J. Harris: So how did you do it? Do you remember?
Simon Wincer: Yeah, well we were up in a little harbor. In a place called Arcadia.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah, yeah, I know Arcadia.
Simon Wincer: At high tide, we basically built a rocket-launcher and we put a full size whale on this rocket launcher (which was sunk into this harbor) and we fired the bloody thing. It went up this track and fired out of the water until it was about 6 feet out of the water and then it came to a stop. And then the shot continued, basically, as CGI. And then we had our full-size animatronic whale, which was just brilliant. A guy called Walter Conte built it. That was on a big crane, so we swung that over the boy’s head and then CGI it as it goes into the water.
Blake J. Harris: Wow.
Simon Wincer: So the combination of that, and then a stunning score by my dearly departed wonderful friend Basil Poledouris. The score was just fantastic…
Blake J. Harris: Did you have a sense that this film was going to be as big of a hit as it turned out to be?
Simon Wincer: Not at first. But after we finished a cut of the film and all the way through my editor, Nick Brown, kept saying, “You’ve got something special here, you know?” The story had so much heart and it was all coming together really well. And little Jason was wonderful. And Michael Madsen. Everything seemed to click. Then we had two previews of the film. The first preview was on a Saturday morning in Woodland Hills, I think it was. The film went through the bloody roof, you know? We were just overwhelmed by the reaction. The score came in at 96, which was one of the highest that Warner ever tested. Well, we had another screening two weeks later and everyone from Warner Bros was at that preview; puffing their chest out and claiming credit for their role in the movie.
Blake J. Harris: [laughing]
Simon Wincer: So the budget for the music went up and we could afford a song from Michael Jackson. It was just unbelievable. And one thing that was great about the film was we changed the way the world thought about whales in captivity and all of that. So it’s just a great family film with a lot of heart and great messages about family. Very proud of that film. And people still talk about it today.
As you can read, if Simon did not take the job, the movie could have been endangered and never happened and by the success of the movie, Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” got on the soundtrack. This was also repeated with “Free Willy 2” and the song “Childhood”.
Enjoy the Music Video that was released for the movie which is also available on the DVD.