Initially conceived by Steven Spielberg as a vehicle for his new production company, Amblin Entertainment, this buccaneering quest of adolescent friends, searching for the buried treasure of a mysterious pirate named One-Eyed Willy, is pre-teen fun at its very best. For all its Indiana Jones thrills and Scooby-Doo inspired plot, the real secret to the continued success of a movie now 35 years old, rests more with its wisecracking lead characters than its shiver-yer-timbers action. As the Goonies director, Richard Donner acknowledged at the time of shooting. “The picture is the kids.”
Turning the cute and boisterous kiddies into genuinely funny characters would not be smooth sailing for Donner’s customarily laid back. “I think the unique thing about working with the kids on The Goonies is that every night I’m contemplating suicide,” he joked back in 1985. “Individually, they’re wonderful, the warmest little things that have come into my life. But you get them together, and it’s mind-blowing.”
While the unruly Goonies cast may have left him on the verge of a breakdown, a dynamic bond formed between the veteran filmmaker and his youthful ensemble. A relationship that is crucial in understanding the film’s success and longevity. “He’d get mad when we were goofing around,” laughed Sean Austin, the gang leader. “ But while he was screaming his lungs out, we’d play a joke on him, like squatting him with water or something. Then it would be hard for him to be mad as he was laughing too much.”
Steven Spielberg dictated the story for The Goonies to his protege Chris Columbus (Home Alone & Harry Potter director) in early 1984. He charged the young writer/director with the responsibility of writing the Goonies screenplay. Throughout the eighties, Spielberg had enthusiastically invested in the talent of those he felt shared his creative sensibilities. Spielberg offered the emerging Joe Dante the opportunity to direct Gremlins and encouraged Robert Zemeckis to helm his self penned script for ‘Back to the Future.’ Perhaps because of Zemeckis’s commitment to the iconic time travel flick, Spielberg, in his capacity as executive producer, turned to Donner for the Goonies. Donner was a filmmaker who had already proved his blockbuster credentials, with the hits The Omen and Superman during the late 70s.
Once a Donner signed on, the casting for the picture began in earnest. Both Donner and Spielberg spent hundreds of hours, auditioning thousands of eager young hopefuls. Continually searching for the unique blend of innocence and precocity on which the entire production would rest. Even for directors with such an established track record, it was a burden of not inconsiderable pressure (after all, Donner had been the man who had cast Christopher Reeve as Superman). To relieve some of the anxiety, Spielberg offered the two actors with whom he had prior experience working. 13-year-old Corey Feldman was the first to be cast as the wisecracking mouth, having appeared in gremlins. Key hi Kwun was cast as the technical whiz Data, fresh from his turn as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Mikey’s asthma-afflicted leader of The Goonies, who dreams of saving his parents from bankruptcy ( and saving his home from the clutches of ruthless property developers), proved more challenging to cast. After much intense auditioning, the filmmakers offered the part to Sean Astin, who, despite acting since the age of nine, had never appeared in a feature film before, let alone in a lead role.
However, Astin confessed years later that he only accepted the part because Spielberg had told him that he would get to kiss the girl at the end of the movie (he was also pursuing a role in Joe Dante’s much-hyped Explorers). Perversely, this element of the script would be altered during shooting, resulting in Mikey’s screen brother Brand (Josh Brolin) replacing him as the romantic lead. Astin still received his kiss thanks to the darkness of the caves, rumbled by Andy due to the braces on his teeth.
Despite hailing from an acting family, 17-year old Josh Brolin (now the stepson of Barbra Streisand) had never performed professionally until The Goonies. But after improvising audition scenes with Donner, using inclusive dialogue from the script, he was immediately offered the role. At a mere 11-years old, Jeff Cohen became the youngest of all the actors cast for the film when he was offered the scene-stealing role of Chunk, an overweight kid with a penchant for the odd white lie (“Okay Mikey, Michael Jackson didn’t come over to my house to use the bathroom… but his sister did!”).
Chunk’s ritual humiliation was to perform the degrading ‘truffle shuffle’ for his pals (while at college and after the film’s original release, Cohen decided to run for college president – the successful campaign slogan for which was “‘Chunk for President’).
Kerri Green was cast as the flame-haired love interest Andy and Martha Plimpton as her sidekick Stef. The more experienced Anne Ramsey, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, and John Matuszak were the evil Fratelli family.
Filming began in the autumn of 1984 in the small west coast town of Astoria, Oregon. Donner did not allow the young actors to see a complete script throughout the entire production. Donner scheduled the five-month shoot so that each scene was filmed in chronological order. This helped his young performers convey the most natural reaction possible to each outrageous stunt or comedy set-piece.
Wanting rain for their sleepy suburban town, Donner and Spielberg were naturally delighted when the weather obliged – often raining six days of the week to provide a grey, muddy and cold environment for all involved. Despite the weather, the cast and crew were enjoying being part of such a fun movie production that, for most, resembled a family vacation rather than a gruelling film shoot.
Although intense in its workload, the entire production adopted a somewhat carnival atmosphere, designed to invigorate and motivate its young cast and enable their natural energy. Donner encouraged crew members to wear Goonies paraphernalia after his own lead – the larger than life director was rarely seen on set without his Goonies cap or jacket. Of the goonies themselves, having the most fun was perhaps Josh Brolin, obviously revelling in his newfound status as a movie sex symbol. “The teenage ladies were just flocking to the hotel,” recalls Donner. “I’ll tell you, we couldn’t keep them away from him.”
After a month in Astoria, the cast and crew wrapped and relocated to Burbank studios in California, where the majority of filming would take place. Michael Riva’s elaborate sets for the film’s underground sequences dominated four separate stages across the legendary studio complex. For the wander-lust cast, each day’s action was like visiting Disneyworld to test out new rides.
However, what was to lend the production its magic was Donner’s insistence that the child cast be entrusted to improvise and ad-lib their roles. “They came up with great ideas and I was the first to listen,” revealed Donner. “We had a tremendous amount of improvisation… once they were able to get into the characters and become a tightly knit group, they were wonderful. They just started to become those characters. There were times when things didn’t seem to be working. If it wasn’t happening for them instinctively, then I knew it was wrong.”
“Donner was incredible,” recalled Brolin. “He was a strong, dominating force on set, which I liked a lot, but he encouraged us to improvise. He knew exactly what he wanted, but let us do what we felt like doing within those guidelines.” In the end, such was the shooting’s spontaneous nature; the finished film contained many original jokes created between the young actors themselves.
If improvisation was proving a delight for its director and principal performers, it was less so for its weary editor Michael Kahn. Kahn struggled to achieve continuity amongst Donner’s uniquely lively direction style of talking over actors during a take.
Donner would chatter instructions and encourage the cast to ad-lib over one another, making it unusually difficult for an editor to cut around. Kahn, who replaced the British editor and long time Donner collaborator Stuart Baird for the film, would telephone Baird in desperation, screaming, “Get me off this picture!”
Craig Reardon and Thomas R Burman’s elaborate makeup designs for the deformed Sloth also provided many a talking point on-set, the finished creation was a face that only a mother could love. Played by ex-sportsman turned actor John Matuszak, the entire makeup process took five hours each day to create, with Sloth’s left eye movement and ears operated by a hidden remote control device.
In addition, the tortuous five-hour affair would have to be repeated from scratch if the actor were to ever get wet, a fact with with Brolin and co would cruelly hold Matuszak to ransom throughout. Also causing a stir at the studio were the intermittent visits from Michael Jackson throughout shooting, the pop star eager to drop by in his free time to catch his close friend Steven Spielberg’s latest production.
At the end of filming, Jackson presented an enchanted cast with concert tickets for the Jackson 5 Victory tour show at the Dodgers Stadium, much to the actors’ obvious delight. Corey Feldman also recalled other celebs coming to visit, “it was a fun set to be on, visited by a steady stream of celebrities. Feldman: “Tim Burton and Paul Reubens [aka Pee-wee Herman] would come over. Dan Aykroyd too. Harrison Ford actually came and climbed around the caves with us at one point.”
As the production wore on, many observers noted the discreet and unspoken tension building between Donner and Spielberg. The Goonies was a personal project for Spielberg, and one in which – despite his aspirations to move into ‘grown-up’ filmmaking (See The Colour Purple and Empire of the Sun) – he intended to retain a great deal of creative input.
“I think it was a difficult time because it’s very difficult to have a producer on the show who’s also a director,” remembers Stuart Baird, Donner’s friend and colleague. “And I think Donner allowed Spielberg to shoot quite a lot of second unit stuff. He had known Spielberg for a long time – I think he’d been kind to him, like when Spielberg was a kid and he’d let Spielberg come on a stage and watch the shoots of the TV shows and stuff, and they had always talked about working with each other – but I would imagine it wasn’t the warmest or easiest of collaborations.”
The two men could often be seen in deep discussion on-set, Donner tense and pensive. His arms crossed defensively, as his young executive producer gestured animatedly. Donner himself acknowledged, “Spielberg is looking over my shoulder the entire time,” before retreating diplomatically, “which, I happen to love because he’s the biggest kid of them all and comes up with the best ideas.”
There were other flare-ups between some of the cast: “I recall, uh, trying to kill Corey one day,” said Martha Plimpton (Stef) in 2015. “I was sitting at the typewriter doing my homework and he came over and started annoying me. I got up from the typewriter and got him on the floor and started smashing his head on it, shouting, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”,” she told Empire in 2015 at a reunion marking its 30th anniversary.
As filming entered its final six weeks, the entire production was buoyed by the commencement of shooting on the giant pirate ship. A full-scale replica model created by Michael Riva and housed in Burbakc’s most significant studio stage. These scenes were the source of much excitement and anticipation – with Riva’s mock-up one of the most impressive and daunting creations ever to grace the famous studio. After filming had wrapped, Donner attempted – without success – to persuade numerous theme parks across the SU to accept the ship as an attraction. Sadly, come the production’s end, the set-piece was scrapped.
As had been his approach through the entire shoot, Donner aimed to get only the most natural response from his new stars, and went to great lengths to do so for the movies climactic scenes. “I never let the kids see the boat. They were banned from the stage from day one, from the start of its construction. The day they were supposed to come out of the shoot and hit that water, turn around and see the ship for the first time, I brought them all in with their backs to the camera. They all knew what they were going to see, but they had no idea what it was going to look like. And so on film, when they turn and see the ship for the first time, it’s their actual real-life reactions.”
With filming complete, Donner and Spielberg hosted a huge Goonies party. The director joked with the kids, insisting that he never wanted to see them again. Little did Donner realize that – with a little help from Spielberg – the kids themselves were to have the last laugh. After the wrap party, Donner departed for his house in Hawaii, determined to relax after a relentless shoot.
The mischievous Spielberg had other plans. He booked the entire child cast onto a private plane – complete with parents and guardians in tow – so that just as Donner had to began to relax, the whole mob appeared on the horizon, screaming, “Hi Dick! We’ve come to visit you!”
On its theatrical release, The Goonies was a financial success, if not the spectacular hit expected (it never reached number one at the US box office). It opened to mixed reviews. Few had forgotten Spielberg’s controversial hands-on producing style with Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. Many assumed (wrongly) that Donner had provided only nominal creative input throughout.
With hindsight, The Goonies today remains as valuable as One-Eyed Willy’s treasure, primarily due to Donner’s unpretentious direction and unique brand of energy and enthusiasm. Full of crackling dialogue (the kids cuss, swear, and insult each other’s mothers in a fashion that only kids can make endearing), slapstick humor and goodies and baddies so clearly defined that you want to boo or cheer along with youthful exuberance. The film bristles with a careful blend of naivety and knowingness typical of all the Donner films.
I never saw it as a fantasy or a fairytale,” Donner waxes. “It’s a true story in which we just happen to be documenting the life of a group of kids, in a little town called Astoria, and the kids call themselves the goonies.”
It is impossible not to find such innocent enthusiasm infectious. In today’s age of convoluted plots and distracting CGI, it isn’t easy to find such a simplistic approach to filming the fantastic anything other than refreshing.
That The Goonies continues to build upon its dedicated following, some people have experienced the fan bases love first hand. In 2015, the owner of the house in Astoria, Oregon was forced to put up signs asking fans to go away after growing weary of the 1,500 people who are estimated to turn up to the Goonies’ headquarters where Chunk once truffle shuffled to take pictures every day.
The fact that it is such a classic, 35 years after its release, is mostly a testament to the skill of its often undervalued director. An outsider with a wondrous imagination and thirst for adventure, perhaps Richard Donner himself was the biggest Goonie of them.