"I Have Some New Ideas": The Scramble Behind Robert Downey Jr.'s 'Dolittle' Debacle

Dolittle Photo Comp - H - 2019
Despite a "good sense of community" on the set of the $175 million Universal tentpole, director turnover and lack of creative cohesion led to a bizarre climax and a potentially major loss for the studio.

Extensive reshoots were underway last year when screenwriter John Whittington arrived on the London set of Dolittle, Universal’s franchise hopeful shepherded by Robert Downey Jr., who starred in and executive produced the $175 million film.

The studio and a contingent of producers — said to be unsatisfied with initial cuts of a movie that was planned as a broad-audience family film reimagining of a tale first brought to the screen in 1967 — hoped to add more special-effects sequences and comedic elements to the project. Whittington met with Downey to discuss the scribe’s new pages. Downey, according to sources close to the project, then proceeded to tear up the pages. "I have some new ideas," the Avengers star said, with a twinkle in his eye.

That improvisational approach, however, didn't work out for Universal and Downey’s production house, Team Downey. In addition to receiving scathing reviews (17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), the 101-minute film has turned into the year's first global bomb. Opening in the U.S. to tepid numbers over the lucrative Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, the film's domestic gross stood at $46.9 million through Jan. 30.

Worse, international audiences are staying away, leading to an anemic worldwide gross to date of roughly $94 million and a potential $75 million to $100 million loss for Universal and its financial partners. Pinpointing a precise loss figure within that range is tough, since the movie has yet to open in a number of foreign markets, including the U.K. and China, but suffice it to say the outlook is bleak.

Almost as bad as any monetary loss is the fact that Dolittle has sidelined hopes for a new family franchise. And it's clear from the movie's quiet January release — it was originally set to open in May 2019 — that Universal knew the reworked movie was still problematic.

Universal picked up the Dolittle package in March 2017, announcing weeks later that it had landed the charismatic Downey to star as the doctor who talks to animals in a film written and to be directed by Oscar winner Stephen Gaghan. While there were studio hands and veteran producers such as Joe Roth and Jeff Kirschenbaum involved with the production, insiders say it was Downey and Susan Downey, his wife and producing partner, that primarily held creative control.

When in fall 2018 the studio saw the first cut — helmed by Gaghan, known for his work on layered dramas such as Syriana and Traffic, for which he won the best adapted screenplay Oscar — executives identified several problems. The assembled version was said to not feel like a family movie; it lacked comedic elements and, considering it was about talking animals, a fair amount of special effects. It became apparent, a source close to the project stresses, that "this is not the kind of movie he should have directed. People backed him thinking, 'We'll surround him with the best teams,' but at a certain point it became clear this wasn't working. And by then it was too late. And it was all hands on deck."

The original ending — which, like the ending in the version that hit theaters, featured a dragon, but which did not involve Downey Jr. giving the dragon an enema — was said to lack humor and focus on a familial thread pegged to the death of Dolittle’s wife. “It felt like a morose father-son story, and there wasn’t a big animal presence,” says one insider familiar with the process.

Universal turned to Seth Rogen for advice, with the actor-turned-filmmaker bringing in the co-screenwriter of his Neighbors films, Brendan O’Brien, and putting together a proposal on what they believed was needed to make the film funnier. But Rogen was too busy with other projects to stay involved, so the studio sought someone who could dedicate energies day to day. It turned to Chris McKay, who showed off both comedy and visual effects chops on his well-received The Lego Batman Movie. McKay assembled edits and storyboarded sequences and worked with Downey on concepts, trying to find a cost-effective way to undertake reshoots. He made the story more mission-oriented and turned the boy character from Dolittle’s son to a hopeful apprentice.

But then McKay was presented an opportunity to direct his own movie — Paramount's The Tomorrow War starring Chris Pratt — and exited. The baton was then passed to Jonathan Liebesman, who had previously worked with McKay on reshoots for 2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Gaghan remained involved throughout, but the revolving door of filmmakers after principal photography ended did little to establish a throughline for the movie, even beyond the reshoots that occurred in London in spring 2019.

The wild card appears to have been Downey. Despite a course having been set for the film’s third-act climax, Downey charted a path for a new direction. Several sources say it was the actor-producer who came up with the idea of the dragon colonoscopy/enema moment at the last minute. He and his reps declined to comment for this story.

One insider described Downey as open for anything. "You can throw so many ideas at him and have the feeling he’ll try anything and everything. He’ll give you feedback. And he’ll have some ideas of his own." As one person who was involved in the extended postproduction process says, "When Iron Man tells you something, you listen to Iron Man."

As is often the case with challenged productions, there were no fights for control or competing cuts involved here. In fact, several insiders say the Downey-Liebesman-Gaghan trifecta was “chummy" and "there was a good sense of community" during the process. "It was not a toxic set," adds a source.

Another insider disputes the notion that Downey had that much input on the film, saying it was Roth and Susan Downey that guided the movie toward the finish line. The executive overseeing the movie for Universal, meanwhile, exited the studio last fall when Dolittle was in the throes of postproduction. "There was, in the end, too many cooks in this kitchen," the insider says.

The ending vexed the moviemakers. Even when it was decided that the dragon was constipated, there was debate over logistics. One cut, according to sources, featured Dolittle removing a boulder-sized stool out of the dragon. In the end, the film showed bagpipes as the constipating culprit, with the good doctor enduring a windfall of gas. 

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.