15 Fun Facts About Starship Troopers

TriStar Pictures
TriStar Pictures

On November 7, 1997, moviegoers watched as a cast of no-name actors—plus Neil Patrick Harris—went to war against a planet full of giant bugs. Most critics dismissed the splatterfest that ensued as yet another brainless action flick. But in the 20 years since its release, appreciation has grown for director Paul Verhoeven’s film as a clever satire of warmongering civilizations. Here are a few things you might not know about Starship Troopers, on the 20th anniversary of its debut.

1. IT’S A COMMENTARY ON ROBERT HEINLEIN’S PRO-WAR NOVEL.

Released in 1959, Heinlein’s sci-fi adventure follows Juan “Johnnie” Rico as he rises through the ranks of the Mobile Infantry squad and eventually battles giant bugs on the planet Klendathu. Filled with classroom lectures and lengthy dialogue about the virtues of armed conflict and molding men into soldiers, the book struck many readers as more political diatribe than action story. One such reader was Ed Neumeier, co-writer of RoboCop, who decided to give Starship Troopers an over-the-top satirical bent, complete with fascist overtones and wholesome teenagers getting mowed down in droves. Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker who directed RoboCop, Total Recall, and Showgirls, and had grown up in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, liked the idea and jumped on board.

2. PAUL VERHOEVEN COULDN’T FINISH THE BOOK.

The filmmaker knew he needed to read Heinlein’s book before he began filming, but he only read a few chapters before giving up and asking Neumeier to tell him the rest. “It is really quite a bad book,” Verhoeven told Empire magazine.

3. ITS WORKING TITLE WAS BUG HUNT AT OUTPOST NINE.

Verhoeven and company didn’t secure the rights to Heinlein’s book until well into the filming process, so they used the campy stand-in until then. That didn’t seem to bother the crew; most of them weren’t even aware of the connection, despite the shared names and plot elements.

4. THE FIRST SCENE IS MODELED AFTER TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

Starship Troopers opens with a recruitment video for the Mobile Infantry unit that recreates Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film. There’s eagle imagery, flags fluttering, a wide shot of troops in formation and soldiers cheerfully proclaiming they’ll do their part.

5. THE UNIFORMS ARE ALSO MODELED AFTER THE THIRD REICH.


TriStar Pictures

The officer uniforms in particular, with their gray-and-black hues, jackboots and eagle pins, were tailored to resemble those worn by the Nazis. Not convinced? Just check out what Neil Patrick Harris wore. 

6. MARK WAHLBERG WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE LEAD ROLE.

No word on why, exactly, he wasn’t chosen, or if he would have accepted the role of Johnny Rico (Juan, a.k.a. Johnnie, was changed to John, a.k.a. Johnny, for the movie), which ended up going to then-unknown Casper Van Dien.

7. VERHOEVEN USED SOME INTERESTING STAND-INS FOR THE CGI BUGS.

The film had an ace visual effects coordinator in Phil Tippett, who also worked on the original Star Wars films and RoboCop. But on set, the computer-generated bugs had to be simulated using some rather unconventional methods. Verhoeven used everything from brooms to poles and even himself as a stand-in. As Clancy Brown (Sgt. Zim) remembers, Verhoeven would be "jumping up and down with a bullhorn going, 'I'm a big f**ing bug! I'll kill you!'”

8. THE SHOWER SCENE WAS BOTH SHOCKING AND EXPECTED.

On the one hand, the scene showing male and female soldiers all showering together was shocking. On the other hand, it was exactly what you’d expect from the director who brought you a three-breasted alien and Sharon Stone’s infamous leg-cross. According to Verhoeven, the cast wouldn’t do the scene unless he and cinematographer Jost Vacano were naked, too. No problemo, he told them. “My cinematographer was born in a nudist colony and I have no problem with taking my clothes off,” Verhoeven told Empire.

9. HANK FROM BREAKING BAD HAD A SMALL ROLE. 


TriStar Pictures

Dean Norris plays the commanding officer who reinstates Rico after his home city of Buenos Aires gets destroyed.

10. GERALD FORD’S SON ALSO HAD A SMALL PART.

Steven Ford, an actor who also appeared in When Harry Met Sally... and Heat, plays Lieutenant Willy, a no-nonsense commander who addresses soldiers before landing on Klendathu. “You kill anything that has more than two legs, you get me?!” he yells as their ship prepares to take off.

11. AND DON’T FORGET RUE MCCLANAHAN.

The Golden Girls actress plays a blind biology teacher who oversees a dissection and introduces her students to some of the bugs’ finer qualities. It’s as far removed from Blanche Devereaux as she could possibly be.

12. A REVOLVING DOOR OF STUDIO EXECS HELPED THE FILM GET MADE.

The mid-1990s were a turbulent time for Sony Pictures, as executives were frequently shuffled and replaced as the company attempted to find its footing. According to Verhoeven, this prevented the studio from taking a more critical look at his $105 million sci-fi satire. “All the satire was in the script from the beginning, but they might not have been really aware of it, or had read it precisely,” he said in an interview with The A.V. Club. “By the time one of them might have understood what movie I was going to make, he was already gone.”    

13. CRITICAL OPINION OF THE MOVIE HAS SHIFTED.

Many were quick to pan the movie’s squeaky-clean cast, over-the-top violence, and seemingly one-dimensional narrative. But in the ensuing years, critics have picked up on Verhoeven’s intent to portray a so-called “ideal” society that’s lacking humanity and consumed by warfare. “Starship Troopers is satire, a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism,” Calum Marsh writes in The Atlantic. “The fact that it was and continues to be taken at face value speaks to the very vapidity the movie skewers.”  

14. IT INSPIRED SEVERAL SEQUELS AND SPINOFFS.

The first sequel, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, came out in 2004, followed four years later by Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. In the latter, Van Dien reprised his role as Johnny Rico—though apparently not to increased returns, as sequel number four never materialized. In 2012, there was Starship Troopers: Invasion, a CGI feature that hewed closely to Heinlein’s novel, followed by a second CGI feature, Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars, which was released in August. Arguably the most popular spin-off was a 1999 animated series called Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles that ran for just one season.

15. IT MAY GET MADE INTO A LIVE-ACTION TV SHOW.

For years, there’s been talk of a possible TV series or a movie reboot. A satire-light, less-violent feature seemed to be in the works, but that irked fans of the original film. Earlier this year, Goosebumps producer Neal Moritz seemed to indicate that a TV show is in development. No word yet on timeframe, network, or whether Neil Patrick Harris will reprise his role as telepath Carl Jenkins.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Do the Right Thing

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

A shot in the arm of American consciousness, Do the Right Thing—Spike Lee’s incendiary profile of racial tension and police overreaction—bristled in the veins of moviegoers when it landed in theaters in the summer of 1989. Taking its title from a Malcolm X quote, Do the Right Thing rumbled with youthful energy, dry comic wit, boombox-blasted politics, and an operatic magic unique to New York City.

It’s a fierce polemic. It’s a snapshot of stereotyping. It’s a chill hangout movie. It was also a showcase of Lee’s directorial know-how, just when experience was shaping his raw creative talent. Crank up the AC and the FM 108 We-Love Radio. Here are 10 things you might not know about Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated joint.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT THAT HAPPENED IN 1986.

On December 19, 1986, four black men—Michael Griffith, Timothy Grimes, Curtis Sylvester, and Cedric Sandiford—were traveling when their car broke down. They walked three miles to the predominantly Italian-American Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York, where they got into an argument with some white teenagers before heading to New Park Pizzeria for a meal and a telephone. When they left the eatery, they were accosted by a larger group of white men, including the ones they’d encountered earlier. Sandiford and Griffith were beaten; Griffith tried to run but was chased onto the Belt Parkway, where he was hit by a car and killed. The incident was such a part of Do the Right Thing’s DNA that Lee wanted to open the film with his character, Mookie, shouting “Howard Beach!” while defacing Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.

2. IT’S DIFFICULT TO FIND SHOTS THAT DON’T FEATURE THE COLOR RED.

A scene from 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

One of the most impressive feats of the movie is how powerfully you feel the heat of the summer day. Besides placing Sterno cans near the camera to keep the air wavy, color was the filmmakers' most important tool in transferring the temperature to the screen. “I did a lot of research on [color usage’s] psychology and worked on a controlled palette that pretty much stayed in the warm range—yellows, reds, earth tones, ambers—and tried to stay away from blues and greens, which have a cooling effect,” cinematographer Ernest Dickerson told The Guardian. That rule extended to costuming, set design, and props, which is why almost every scene has at least one red element in it.

3. SPIKE LEE ORIGINALLY WANTED ROBERT DE NIRO TO PLAY SAL.

Oh, what might have been. It’s a no-brainer that Lee would have wanted Robert De Niro for the role of the brash Italian-American pizzeria owner, which eventually went to Danny Aiello (who scored an Oscar nomination for the film). “What young filmmaker wouldn’t want him to star in their film?” Lee said. “So, I gave him the script and he liked it, but he said it wasn’t for him.”

4. IT CONTAINS NODS TO A FEW CLASSIC FILMS.

Bill Nunn in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An avid cinephile and a student of film history, Lee is such a massive fan of Charles Laughton’s chest-thumper Night of the Hunter that he dropped part of it into the middle of Do the Right Thing. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carries the knuckle ring version of Robert Mitchum’s Night of the Hunter character’s “Love” and “Hate” tattoos, and he explains their existence using almost the exact same monologue.

Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson also turned to classic noir The Third Man for its use of disorienting Dutch angles; you can watch as the camera angle gets more and more aggressively tilted leading up to the riot.

5. LEE TOOK THE MOVIE TO ANOTHER STUDIO TO AVOID A SAPPY ENDING.

It’s hard to imagine it, but Paramount executives dropped a bomb on Lee close to the end of pre-production, demanding an unrealistically uplifting ending. “They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing ‘We Are the World,’” Lee told New York Magazine. "They told me this on a Friday; Monday morning we were at Universal.” Obviously, he did the right thing.

6. ROSIE PEREZ’S DANCE SEQUENCE TOOK EIGHT HOURS TO FILM.

Even the opening credits of Do the Right Thing are iconic. Rosie Perez’s frenetic, emotional dance to the bowel-shaking bass boom of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” sets the stage as well as any of Shakespeare’s prologues.

“Spike didn’t tell me he needed anger and angst and exhaustion,” Perez explained. “Instead, he just said, ‘I need you to kill it.’ I thought, okay. I thought I killed it in the first hour. Freakin’ eight hours later, this freakin’ man had me still dancing. I had tennis elbow, my knee was swelling. So, I forgot about the lyrics, the original words—you know, Elvis, John Wayne? To me, it was all 'Spike, Spike, Spike, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!' And when rage and hate just poured out of my body, pure exhaustion, he went, ‘Cut, print it! We got it!'"

7. LEE HIRED THE NATION OF ISLAM’S PARAMILITARY AS SECURITY ON THE SET.

The production descended on a Bedford-Stuyvesant street in late summer 1988, building Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and painting murals, but largely leaving the neighborhood in its natural state for the shoot. To ensure safety, they hired members of Fruit of Islam, then run by Louis Farrakhan, to act as on-set security. One of their first jobs was boarding up known crack houses and guarding them to deter drug abusers from returning.

8. CLOTHING REINFORCES THE RACIAL LOYALTIES.

Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and Richard Edson in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Lee and costume designer Ruth E. Carter bolstered certain characters’ attitudes by dressing them in racially-coded clothes. The white, brownstone-owner cyclist (John Savage) who scuffs Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) shoes wears a Larry Bird Celtics jersey while Buggin’ Out’s sneaks are Air Jordans. Mookie also wears a Jordan jersey and a Dodgers jersey with Jackie Robinson’s number. Plus, while the racist Pino (John Turturro) wears all black in classic villain fashion, he wears a white undershirt while at work in the pizzeria, signaling his racial allegiance in the neighborhood in contrast to his open-minded brother Vito (Richard Edson), who wears a black undershirt.

9. IT WAS DIRECTLY AIMED AT HURTING A MAJOR NEW YORK CITY POLITICIAN.

There’s no mistaking that Do the Right Thing is an overtly political movie that spoke to complex, large-scale issues like gentrification, systemic racism, and police brutality, but parts of it were also aimed at one politician in particular. Blaming Mayor Ed Koch for the deaths of black men and women like Eleanor Bumpurs (one person to whom the movie is dedicated) at the hands of an overly aggressive police force, Lee included graffiti that said “DUMP KOCH” next to an image of Mike Tyson punching Koch and Jesse Jackson campaign posters that say, “Our Vote Counts!”

“We had this plan because the film came out in August and that fall was the Democratic primary [between Koch and David Dinkins],” Lee told New York Magazine. “So, throughout the film, you hear Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by Samuel Jackson, telling people to vote, vote, vote. And Dinkins won."

10. BARACK AND MICHELLE OBAMA SAW IT ON THEIR FIRST DATE.

Martin Lawrence, Giancarlo Esposito, and Steve White in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

“He was trying to show me his sophisticated side by selecting an independent filmmaker,” Michelle Obama said, reflecting on seeing Do the Right Thing on her first date with her future husband—and the future president. On the 25th anniversary of Lee’s film, Barack Obama recorded a video message thanking Lee for helping him impress Michelle. Other options for that first date? Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids were still in theaters, and The Karate Kid Part III came out the same weekend as Do the Right Thing.

13 Nostalgic Facts About American Graffiti

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Before he made Star Wars, then ruined Star Wars, then saved Star Wars by selling it to Disney, George Lucas made another iconic film that has served as a cultural touchstone. American Graffiti, released 45 years ago today, was a nostalgic, semi-autobiographical look at the American teenager circa 1962, before "the sixties" kicked in and changed everything. The film was a massive hit, earning $55 million in 1973 and another $63 million when it was re-released in 1978—a total of some $500 million at today's ticket prices. Let's get nostalgic for nostalgia and look in-depth at the making of American Graffiti

1. GEORGE LUCAS MADE THE MOVIE PARTIALLY OUT OF SPITE.

The young director's previous film and first feature, the futuristic sci-fi drama THX-1138, had been a disappointment both critically and commercially. Lucas' wife, Marcia—as well as friend Francis Ford Coppola—urged him to make something more relatable. "Don't be so weird," Lucas recalled Coppola telling him. "Try to do something that's human ... Everyone thinks you're a cold fish, but you can be a warm and funny guy, make a warm and funny movie."

Marcia said, "I reminded George that I warned him [THX] hadn't involved the audience emotionally. He always said, 'Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck ...' So finally, George said to me, 'I'm gonna show you how easy it is. I'll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.'" He showed her!

2. IT WAS SAVED FROM BECOMING A TV MOVIE BY THE GODFATHER.

Universal Pictures gave Lucas a budget of $600,000, or about $3.5 million in 2016 dollars, to make the movie—in other words, not very much. When Coppola came onboard as a producer shortly after the release of The Godfather, Universal gave Lucas another $175,000. Later, when the film was finished and had test-screened positively, Universal inexplicably wanted to drastically re-edit it and release it as a TV movie. Lucas objected but had no clout. Coppola, on the other hand—by this time an Oscar-winner—could make studio executives listen. He convinced them to do only a little bit of trimming (the deleted scenes were reincorporated for home video release) and to release the film theatrically. 

3. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THERE IS NO ACTUAL CONNECTION BETWEEN AMERICAN GRAFFITI AND HAPPY DAYS.

Happy Days premiered five months after American Graffiti was released. It was set in the '50s, had Ron Howard playing a teen very similar to his American Graffiti character, used "Rock Around the Clock" as its theme song, and even borrowed the American Graffiti font for the credits. You'd think that Happy Days was somehow a spin-off of the movie, but you'd be wrong. It actually began as an unsold pilot in 1971 and aired in 1972 as part of the anthology series Love, American Style. (Lucas watched it at some point when he was considering casting Howard in American Graffiti.) After the movie took off, and with '50s nostalgia in high gear (Grease was burning up Broadway), ABC reconsidered the Happy Days pilot, ordered a series, and did everything they could to make it remind people of American Graffiti. It ran for 10 years and was one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history. 

4. THE STUDIO WANTED TO CHANGE THE TITLE.

Universal executives didn't know what American Graffiti meant as a title (they weren't alone), and begged Lucas to change it. They furnished a list of 60 alternates, including Rock Around the Block (Coppola's suggestion) and Another Slow Night in Modesto (which was close to Lucas' original working title, Another Quiet Night in Modesto). Lucas wouldn't budge.

5. LUCAS'S CO-WRITERS DIDN'T LIKE THE ENDING.

The film ends with title cards revealing what happened to the main characters (the male ones, anyway) afterward, much of which isn't happy. The co-writers Lucas hired early on to help him develop the script, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, found it depressing and strange and tried to talk Lucas out of it but never succeeded. (Stubbornness is a recurring theme in stories about Lucas.)

6. WOLFMAN JACK WAS A HOLDOVER FROM A PREVIOUS MOVIE IDEA LUCAS HAD.

The radio DJ with the distinctive voice was part of Lucas' teenage years in Modesto, California, and Lucas even considered making a documentary about him when he was a student at USC's film school. When American Graffiti made him a millionaire, Lucas paid the Wolfman a little extra for serving as the film's "inspiration." 

7. IN THE ORIGINAL CONCEPTION, THE BLONDE WASN'T REAL.

Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) spends most of the film chasing a beautiful, mysterious blonde (played by Suzanne Somers) he sees driving a Ford Thunderbird. Lucas originally intended to shoot a scene where the blonde and the car were briefly transparent, revealing to the audience that she was a figment of Curt's imagination. This was one of the things that had to go when Universal insisted on a strict, tight budget. 

8. THE PRODUCER HAD TO BECOME MACKENZIE PHILLIPS'S LEGAL GUARDIAN FOR THE SHOOT.

Mackenzie Phillips was just 12 years old when she arrived to make the film, and though she had showbiz experience (her father, John Phillips, was in The Mamas & the Papas), neither she nor her parents realized that California law required her to have a guardian present. "They were almost going to have to recast me, but Gary Kurtz"—a producer on the film—"and his family said, 'We'll take her,'" Phillips said in 1999. " So they went to the courts in San Francisco and got guardianship of me." Phillips lived with the Kurtzes for the duration of the shoot and described it as a happy experience. 

9. THE PRODUCTION WAS KICKED OUT OF TOWN AFTER ONE DAY OF SHOOTING.

Lucas and company planned to shoot the film in San Rafael, California, as the real setting—Modesto—had changed too much since 1962. But after just one day in San Rafael, the city council gave them the boot. Not only had a member of the crew been arrested for growing marijuana, but the first night of filming and its accompanying street closures had drawn complaints from local businesses. The production moved 20 miles north to Petaluma, where things ran a bit more smoothly (at least in terms of interactions with the locals).  

10. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM SOLD 3 MILLION COPIES.

The concept of filling an entire soundtrack with nothing but preexisting popular songs (rather than an instrumental score) was still new, with Easy Rider (1969) having been the first major example. The American Graffiti double album included 41 of the 43 songs heard in the movie, arranged in the order they appear, missing only "Gee" by The Crows and "Louie Louie" by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids.

11. THERE'S A REASON ELVIS PRESLEY IS CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT FROM THE SOUNDTRACK.

The reason, of course, is money. To mitigate the cost of licensing so many songs, Universal offered a flat rate to all of the labels involved. Everyone went along with it except for RCA, which meant no Elvis. The kids in American Graffiti are therefore probably the only teenagers in America who could listen to the radio all night in 1962 and never hear an Elvis song. 

12. HARRISON FORD WOULD ONLY AGREE TO BE IN THE MOVIE IF HE DIDN'T HAVE TO CUT HIS HAIR.

The future Han Solo had become disenchanted with showbiz and was working as a carpenter to support his wife and two children when he got the American Graffiti audition. His character, Bob Falfa, was supposed to have a flattop, but since Ford didn't care much whether he made the film or not, he issued an ultimatum: He wouldn't do it if it required cutting his hair. A compromise was reached, and Bob Falfa wears a Stetson hat throughout the film. 

13. THERE WERE A WHOLE LOT OF SHENANIGANS ON THE SET.

Lucas worked hard and fast, shooting anywhere from six to 10 script pages a night (twice the norm), but there was still a lot of downtime for the large ensemble cast of young, energetic actors. Harrison Ford (who turned 30 during the shoot and was one of the oldest people there), Paul Le Mat, and Bo Hopkins drank a lot of beer between takes and were said to have been kicked out of the Holiday Inn for things like urinating in the ice machines and climbing on the hotel's rooftop sign. Someone set fire to Lucas' hotel room. Le Mat threw Dreyfuss into the swimming pool one night, gashing his forehead. Adding to the carnival atmosphere were the hundreds of local gearheads who were paid $25 each to lend their classic cars to the production and who hung around every night, gawking at the actors and drag-racing on the back streets. 

Additional sources:
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind
Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, by Dale Pollock

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