Flashbacks

Cool Runnings at 30, as told by its stars: ‘They wanted us to sound like Sebastian the Crab’

As the celebrated bobsled comedy hits its 30th birthday, Simon Bland speaks to its director and stars about John Candy’s on-set struggles, the controversy over the characters’ Jamaican accents, and the darker, sexier edges of the film’s original script

Saturday 30 September 2023 06:30 BST
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<p>One of the decade’s most enduring underdog stories: Doug E Doug, Malik Yoba, Rawle D Lewis, John Candy and Leon in ‘Cool Runnings’</p>

One of the decade’s most enduring underdog stories: Doug E Doug, Malik Yoba, Rawle D Lewis, John Candy and Leon in ‘Cool Runnings’

What Cool Runnings had to say wasn’t revolutionary,” says the 1993 film’s director Jon Turteltaub. “It was just being said in a great way that really connected with people. A compliment from your friends is great, but when you hear Lewis Hamilton say it was life-changing, you go to your grave aware that, somehow, my work touched someone else’s life and made a difference. That goes way beyond box office success.”

Mention Disney’s bobsled classic to anyone who grew up in the early Nineties, and odds are, they’ll instantly hear its central jingle: “Nuff people say, they know they can’t believe, Jamaica we have a bobsled team.” It’ll also likely be accompanied by feelings of warm, cosy nostalgia – and not just because of the film’s regular airings on UK telly and near-constant ITV2 Sunday afternoon repeats.

Turteltaub’s family comedy, which turns 30 on 1 October, very loosely adapted the unlikely real-life story of the 1988 Winter Olympics and the debut of the Jamaican national bobsleigh team on the world stage. Playing fast and loose with the facts, he introduced us to Derice Bannock (Leon), Junior Bevil (Rawle D Lewis), Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba) and Sanka Coffie (Doug E Doug), four island athletes who discover an unusual way to make it as Olympic champions after their original route falls through.

Under the guidance of disgraced bobsled coach Irving “Irv” Blitzer (John Candy), the quartet defy the odds to become Jamaica’s first Olympic-qualifying bobsled team. They then swap their balmy paradise home for the frozen Calgary competition track, where the snowy weather perfectly matches the ice-cold snobbery of their spandex-clad opponents. By its close, Cool Runnings has subtly tackled themes of cultural difference, empowerment and racism, while never straying from its family-friendly ethos – and it’s also why the film would go on to become one of the decade’s most enduring underdog stories.

These days, Turteltaub has carved out one of the most eclectic filmographies in Hollywood, directing films as diverse as the Sandra Bullock romcom While You Were Sleeping and Jason Statham’s shark-attack movie The Meg. However, by 1992, he’d only three credits to his name, the most impressive being 3 Ninjas, a martial arts comedy that cashed in on The Karate Kid craze.

Cool Runnings was almost someone else’s film, too: British director Brian Gibson was originally slated to direct a more serious take, under the working title Blue Maaga. It had even begun the casting process alongside the movie’s producer, Dawn Steel.

“Before Disney took over and made it a family film, there were drugs, racism and the characters were getting laid a lot,” says star Rawle D Lewis, who was cast as the shy, wealthy Junior Bevil. “I saw it morph into the movie that it is now. It was something that had never been told before – Jamaicans in tights? People were like, ‘How’s this going to go under the Disney umbrella?’”

It’s a bit clichéd that the funny guy might not be the happy guy, but there’s a little truth to that. John Candy was a fun, happy person, but if you got really deep, there was a lot of sadness and anger under there

Jon Turteltaub, director

Lewis had originally been recruited as a script reader during auditions – an actor who’d perform off-camera while other actors came in to read for roles. As such, he had a ringside seat to casting, watching on as a wide array of stars threw their hats into the ring for a chance to appear in Disney’s latest. “They auditioned in London, New York and LA and saw different people that are now big who were then just coming up,” he remembers. “I saw Cuba Gooding Jr, Damon Wayans… I think Malik saw Tupac.”

Yoba’s audition saw him improvise what would become the film’s signature song, which was later written into the movie once he was cast as island tough guy Brenner. “Every Jamaican has a song in their heart, even if they can’t sing,” Yoba jokes. “I thought, I’m going to walk in here with a song regardless of whether or not I get the film. I just knew it was a realistic approach to playing any kind of Jamaican.”

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Representing Jamaican culture on the world stage was a huge factor for the movie’s lead, Leon. Having spent time living in Jamaica, he was determined to do the island justice. “The thought that we were representing Jamaica in such a progressive way and letting people glimpse into a culture they were completely unaware of was important,” he says.

All four actors were practically set in their roles before the movie almost fell apart. After disappearing for eight months, Steel reemerged with a different script, one that had swapped its original, gritty feel for something more Disney-fied – and came complete with a brand new title, Cool Runnings. While its tone had changed, the chemistry of its stars helped the story survive the transition. “You could see their heart and warmth,” says Turteltaub, who joined as director and completed the casting process after the script had evolved. “No matter what they were saying or doing, you liked them. They had a sense of humour and fun to them and that can’t help but come out on screen.”

Teamwork: Malik Yoba, Leon, Doug E Doug and Rawle D Lewis in ‘Cool Runnings’

When Cool Runnings was a darker movie, Coach Blitzer was conceived as a grizzled character role, with Kurt Russell among the names considered. Once Disney reimagined the film as a whole, though, Blitzer took on a more comedic edge while retaining a slice of drama. John Candy had made his name with hit Eighties comedies including Spaceballs and Uncle Buck, but by the early Nineties his career had hit a plateau. While a bit part in Oliver Stone’s 1991 political thriller JFK let him flex some dramatic chops, Cool Runnings placed him back onto familiar ground, mixing humour with pathos by playing a washed-up former mentor who finds his way back to the big time.

“John was maybe the most delightful actor I’ve ever been around,” remembers Turteltaub. “I was a complete moron when I first met him; I couldn’t stop giggling at everything he said. I thought: ‘[I’m] not behaving like a director who’s in charge, [I’m] acting like a child who just met his hero’ – and that went on for weeks.”

“John was fantastic,” adds Leon. “He was so generous, forthcoming and genuinely happy to be doing that movie. I think it was because it gave him a chance to show a different side of himself.” Lewis has similar memories: “He took us under his wing and shared stories with us. [He] said ‘This is your movie. I’m just here to help it along.’ He literally played the coach to us.”

Going out of his way to arrange cast dinners, Candy even made each of his on-screen sledders CD mixtapes with curated songs that he felt represented their characters. “He also offered to take us salmon fishing in Alaska when the film was done,” recalls Yoba. “He was a classy guy.”

However, Yoba also noticed a sadness to Candy. “He was 42 at that point and had never taken a vacation in his professional career,” he remembers. “He said it was because he was afraid he’d never work again. That always stuck with me. At that time, he was probably the biggest he had ever been in his life and I recall he had a trainer on set with him and he was really struggling to lose weight. He was very insecure about his place in the Hollywood ecosystem. Most people would never imagine that would be the case for the great John Candy – but it was.”

Father figure: John Candy cheers on the team in ‘Cool Runnings’

“I know he had fears about his career and how he was perceived by people,” adds Turteltaub. “His whole life, John hated not being liked. He was afraid of it on a personal and professional level.” Turteltaub says that Candy’s inability to turn down autograph requests was evidence of this crutch in action. “John had trouble doing that because he felt like a bad person if he didn’t. That eats away at a person.”

Candy died from a heart attack in 1994, just five months after Cool Runnings’ release. “It’s a bit clichéd that the funny guy might not be the happy guy, but there’s a little truth to that,” continues Turteltaub. “John was a fun, happy person, but if you got really deep, there was a lot of sadness and anger under there.”

Meanwhile, Turteltaub had his own battles on the set, primarily when it came to Disney’s then-boss Jeffrey Katzenberg. He was worried that audiences might struggle to understand an authentic Jamaican cadence, so the accents used by the film’s central quartet became a near-constant point of contention.

“They wanted me to sound like a black Aladdin,” says Leon. “They wanted a Disney version of [the accent]. It was tough because if anybody wants to be authentic, it’s me – but I’m a professional and I had to do the job.” Lewis and Yoba remember the situation, too. “They were like ‘Don’t show their crotch’ because it was Disney and a family film,” laughs Lewis. “They thought we were going to have these packages.” Yoba adds: “They’d say ‘people in Middle America won’t be able to understand you’. I think, at that time, people had less access to cultural differences and didn’t know how Jamaican really sounded.”

If this movie was made [in 2023], there’s zero chance I’d get this job – and I probably shouldn’t get it

Jon Turteltaub, director

Things came to a head during a heated 1am phone call between Turteltaub and Katzenberg. “He said, ‘If you can’t get these accents to where I can understand them clearly, I’ll find a director who can,’” he remembers. After a suggestion was made to have the cast sound like The Little Mermaid’s Sebastian the Crab (a character with a Trinidadian accent), Turteltaub knew he had to take drastic action. “The next day, I told the cast, ‘I’m going to get fired if you don’t sound like Sebastian the Crab. Please don’t get me fired.’ We joked about it but they got it. They understood. ‘We’re not going to do Sebastian the Crab but we’re going to make an Americanised version of the movie that people around the world can understand’.”

Turteltaub doesn’t know if things would be different if Cool Runnings was made today. “Times have changed a lot in 30 years,” he says. “If this movie was made [in 2023], there’s zero chance I’d get this job – and I probably shouldn’t get it. I’m on the side of the people who say I shouldn’t have directed this and yet we ended up with a pretty great movie. It’s tricky.”

The film’s legacy is perhaps best encapsulated in one of its most memorable moments. When the foursome first arrive on the snowy Calgary tracks to begin training and are met with ridicule from the spectating crowd, Yul gives Junior a quiet message of defiance while subtly tackling the elephant in the room.

“The best line in the movie is said by Yul to Junior: ‘We’re different. People are always afraid of what’s different,’” says Turtletaub, remembering the scene. “I didn’t want this movie to be overtly about racism,” he continues. “The movie made that universal. Everyone knows that feeling. By not being finger-waggy, we made our point much better.”

Following its release, this lasting message helped Cool Runnings take everyone by surprise and not just become a box office hit but survive the test of time. As it turns out, Disney’s lack of faith in the movie allowed it to find audiences on its own terms. Before long, it had grossed $154.9m (£126m) worldwide on a scant budget of around $15m (£12m) budget. Critics such as Roger Ebert praised its sweetness, while The Washington Post commended its inspirational ethos.

The surprisingly arty original poster for the cinematic release of ‘Cool Runnings’

Three decades later and while the “House of Mouse” has emerged as the master of reboots and legacy sequels, a Cool Runnings follow-up has yet to materialise… so far, anyway. “There were discussions then and there are discussions now,” teases a cryptic Turtletaub. Meanwhile, Leon agrees that it’s a property ripe for a continuation: “How many Mighty Ducks movies are there? If every winter Olympics there was a new Cool Runnings, Disney would clean up.”

Sequels aside, Cool Runnings maintains a firm grip on the heartstrings of those who grew up with it. According to the cast, they’re regularly approached on the street by fans, some of whom first discovered Cool Runnings in some very unexpected places. “A lot of people think I was in prison with them,” laughs Lewis. “They tell me [the guards] let them watch it because it’s not too violent. I like that we’re the safe choice in prisons.”

“So many people have shared stories with us about how Cool Runnings has changed their lives,” Leon adds. “I’ll never forget the 12-year-old boy who lost his dad and was so depressed that he watched the movie for 30 days straight to make himself feel better. I don’t take it for granted.”

Yoba agrees: “It’s truly amazing how many people feel like an outsider or underdog and this movie gives them a sense of belonging or pride. That’s one of the best feelings to be associated with.”

‘Cool Runnings’ is streaming on Disney+

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