Mel Gibson, Taylor Lautner and the 20-Year Effort to Make a 'Stretch Armstrong' Movie
Disney, Universal, dozens of writers and a $10 million payday for Danny DeVito: The Hollywood Reporter presents the oral history of the superhero movie that just couldn't get off the ground.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Stretch Armstrong is one of those mythical properties that’s languished in development for what seems like forever. In its various incarnations, it’s been a Disney family comedy, a spy movie, a teen movie and a superhero movie. Half the working writers in town have taken a pass at a draft. And the title character is probably the only role in movie history to have been filled, at one point or another, by Danny DeVito, Jackie Chan and Taylor Lautner. But despite a series of false starts and creative differences, Stretch endures. Now, 20 years later, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the people who tried (and thus far!) failed to bring Stretch Armstrong to the screen.
In April 1994, Caravan Pictures, a production company at Disney co-founded by Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum, struck a deal with CAPS Toys Inc. to produce a movie based on the bendy action figure that was popular in the 1970s. Stretch Armstrong was put on the fast track and scheduled for a 1995 release. Needless to say, it missed the date.
John Osher (owner, CAP Toys): We were a $140 million toy company and our biggest toy was Stretch Armstrong. I got the idea of trying to sell it to the movie industry, which I didn’t know anything about. But I knew it could make a great movie.
Doug Draizin (producer): Around 1991 or '92, a client of mine, Jay Dubin, was directing a television series called Beakman’s World. One of the interns or production assistants said that his dad was a toy manufacturer out of Cleveland. It was called CAP Toys Inc. Jay calls me and says, ‘Remember this doll Stretch Armstrong?’ I go, ‘Jay, I’m not really interested in playing with dolls. What do you got?’ ‘Do you think it could be a movie?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what it is but it’s a great title.’ I called John and introduced myself. I told him I had a relationship with Joe Roth; he had just started a new company called Caravan [Pictures]. I called him up. I brought over the doll and did a little presentation. Joe said ‘Let’s do it.’
Bernie Goldmann (former senior vp production, Disney): I thought it was a great idea for a movie. We were developing it as a comedy in the line of Flubber. That was our focus: to make a broader range of family movies with the Disney label. Joe [Roth] was a part of that. This was certainly a big marketable idea.
Draizin: Joe gives me a call and tells me he just got a call from [then Disney Studios chief] Jeffrey Katzenberg and he wants Stretch Armstrong now. They had hired a director [William Dear]. He had done Angels in the Outfield.
William Dear (director): I was a little leery of a project that originated in concept with a toy. I had been attached loosely to Masters of the Universe before it was made. That was kind of scary because the story was driven by a promotion of a toy. I think that kind of lingered.
Goldmann: Movies based on toys are very difficult. You look at some recent examples and go, "Yeah, it doesn’t really matter that you have that title because you are inventing everything." It’s not easy.
Matt Bierman (junior executive, Disney): I think with Stretch the concern was that you absolutely needed a physical comedian.
Osher: Jim Carrey would have been great.
Draizin: We couldn’t get Tim Allen to say yes.
Dear: [Osher] was really locked on wanting Mel Gibson. We all thought it was kind of weird. And that was before the notoriety that Mel sort of can conjure now and then.
Osher: Yes, Mel was discussed. We were interested in any famous actor who had a prominent chin that could look like Stretch Armstrong. And Woody Harrelson also was considered. When they got to Sinbad, I realized they didn’t care about what Stretch Armstrong looked like. I was interested in getting someone who could look like Stretch Armstrong because we had a toy that related to it and we didn’t have to make a new toy. Stretch was blond and had a big chin. Then they started talking Danny DeVito and this and that. Then I realized that they were in the movie business. Anything about toys was inconsequential.
While Disney had trouble finding their Stretch Armstrong, a workable script proved an even greater challenge.
Osher: We went through script after script. The scripts were all terrible. And they’d hired screenwriters who’d done famous, successful scripts, but they were awful. They were just idiotic.
Bierman: The Disney culture in those days was you might have five sets of writers on the script. You’d beat it up until you thought it was perfect. I think the reason it didn’t get made is we were always trying to elevate it. We tried to get the scripts we had to be better.
Michael Colleary (writer): Mike [Werb and I] met with [Caravan] development executive Sarah Bowman. She said, "Here’s the situation: We’ve heard a lot of pitches and all of them have been heavy on gags on stretchy arms, legs and necks -- the obvious stuff. We need a movie, a family movie."
Mike Werb (writer): We wanted to take more of a Frank Capra angle. We said, "If Frank Capra would direct a superhero movie, it would be this."
Colleary: Joe and [Caravan co-founder] Roger [Birnbaum] were really happy [with our script]. About a week later, I get a call from Mike. He says, "Well, the news about Stretch Armstrong couldn’t be worse." It totally did not compute because up until that day, we were heroes. He said, "The studio is reeling. This is not at all what the studio wanted or expected." I think we subsequently had a meeting where we were going to have to pitch for the job of rewriting ourselves, which we declined to do. We asked Sarah Bowman, ‘What happened? Did the studio know what we were writing? Did Joe or Roger or you ever pitch the actual story to the studio?’ All she would say is, "That’s water under the bridge." We have no idea what happened.
Sarah Bowman (former Caravan executive): I’ve been out of the business for over 15 years, so I have nothing to say on the topic.
Greg Erb (writer, with Craig Mazin): Our basic story was, a Tim Allen kind of single dad, who is a research scientist, is trying to balance his work life with raising his two kids and he’s stretched too thin, which I’m sure is the metaphor we used, and then he accidentally takes this serum and gets stretchy powers. It was a family comedy. It wasn’t really a superhero movie. There was a good response to the script.
Werb: Greg Erb used to live on my street in West Hollywood. We used to laugh about it. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re rewriting you guys!’
Colleary: Stretch Armstrong sounds like it has paid the mortgages for a lot of writers over the past 20 years.
Bierman: With Greg Erb and Craig Mazin’s script, there was a point where I thought, "We should just go make this."
Draizin: Nina Jacobson came in to replace Bernie, who had gone to Warner Bros.
Brigham Taylor (executive vp creative development and production at Disney): The [Mazin and Erb script] was the version that Nina as the senior executive and me as the junior executive inherited. It was a film that harkened back to the mold of The Absent Minded Professor. The conversation was, "Is this the most interesting and exciting way to go?" It was kind of a flashing-green property. To two executives taking a fresh look at it, there were questions and a desire to go back to the drawing board a bit -- to go from flashing green back to development. We felt like maybe it wasn’t contemporary enough as we needed to work in the marketplace. That started a series of attempts to reinvent with a few different talent attachments.
Draizin: We finally got Danny DeVito attached. I think it was like a $10 million deal. I remember that number and I’ll tell you why.
Michael Kalesniko (writer): My version took place in San Francisco because I wanted to use the bridge and those streets. I wanted to stretch the living hell out of him. At one point, he saves an armored truck that goes off the bridge. There were all these big fun set pieces. There is one where he stretches so high that he is past the fuselage of a jet.
Peter Care (director): I remember thinking that the script was way too huge. I remember the script had a massive climax that was more suited to a Spider-Man movie.
Kalesniko: We weren’t going to do [jokes like] Danny [stretching] really tall on a date. We just avoided all that. The jokes seemed rather obvious. You’d beat that one to death pretty quickly so we just ignored it.
Draizin: Danny DeVito did not want to do any short jokes. The whole point of Stretch Armstrong was stretching and Danny DeVito, the short guy, stretching. Apparently, he didn’t want any references made to that. What came back to me was that [former president of Disney animation] Peter Schneider said, "There’s no way I’m paying Danny DeVito $10 million to be in a movie called Stretch Armstrong when you can’t make any real jokes." Something like that. Don’t quote me. I was devastated. Danny left the project. Then we had the idea of Jackie Chan.
Taylor: Jackie Chan was having great success with family entertainment, and we talked about something more in the action genre but that didn’t quite stick.
Draizin: Then I get a call from Brigham Taylor, great guy, who says, Brian Grazer is interested. Then Imagine took over the development of the property and I went off. Once Brian Grazer came in, I was like, "Send me the check."
Taylor: The last shot we took was when Imagine came on to produce. My friend Jim Whitaker and I talked about adapting a more fable-like story. We talked about movies like Edward Scissorhands and Dumbo and movies about someone being born a certain way and having this distinction and so it was more about someone embracing who they were. We didn’t get what we wanted, and then the clock ran out on the rights.
The rights to Stretch Armstrong reverted to Hasbro — Osher sold CAP Toys to Hasbro in 1996 — and the project remained dormant for years. Then in February 2008, Universal Pictures and Hasbro announced a deal to produce movies based on Hasbro properties, including Battleship (which was released in 2012) and Stretch Armstrong; Imagine remained on. Later, Rob Letterman was pegged to direct a script written by Nicholas Stoller. Twilight’s Taylor Lautner would play Stretch. In a THR interview, Universal co-chairman Donna Langley said, “In the past two years, Taylor has emerged as a real star at the global box office. He brings the perfect balance of energy and athleticism to the role of an unlikely superhero with a fantastic superpower.” For his part, Lautner said, “The awesome thing with toys is, it doesn’t give you a storyline, so you get to create it. The development process for this movie has been awesome.”
Universal soon dropped Stretch Armstrong, but in January 2012, Relativity Media partnered with Hasbro to develop and produce the project. Lautner, Letterman and Stoller were out. Later that year, it was announced that Breck Eisner (Sahara) would direct a script by Dean Georgaris (2004’s The Manchurian Candidate) for an April 2014 release date. (Without an actor attached at press time, this 2014 date looks unlikely.)
Terry Curtin (president of theatrical marketing, Relativity): Once Stretch Armstrong was available, we were really excited about the opportunity to partner with Hasbro. They have global reach in the franchise marketplace and have had a lot of success with the Transformers series and G.I. Joe -- even Battleship, on a worldwide level, wound up being a successful property for them. We thought they would be a perfect partner for us to align with for a lasting franchise, and what we love about this project in particular is it gives us an opportunity to introduce a brand-new superhero from scratch. It’s very character dependent, so we get to develop this character and develop this storyline and also build this intricate world around this character that will be a lasting world and mythology for this superhero to inhabit for many years. There is a big opportunity here.
Nearly two decades after it was first announced, Stretch Armstrong remains in development. What went wrong?
Goldmann: It was really a time with poor CGI. I think it’s easier to think of the movie today than 15 years ago. But I think the toughest part of the movie is who is this guy, what happens to him, how does he become empowered by it and how do you turn it into something that’s empowering that doesn’t become hairbrained.
Taylor: The thing we could never solve was to find a thematic quality to attach to the character that sort or mirrored this physical ability. Every superhero, there’s a thematic quality to their ability and it raises certain questions. For one reason or another we could never crack that, and I think that therefore at no point did we think we had the movie.
Osher: It still can work with a good script. It’s a funny character. He has a funny magic trick. But you have to take it beyond the magic trick. You have to give it a good story.
Draizin: The biggest problem was that it wasn’t a superhero movie. There was no origin on Stretch. It’s just a title.