DreamWorks "Screwed Up": Why Cult Classic 'Galaxy Quest' Wasn't a Bigger Hit
Before Guardians of the Galaxy, there was Galaxy Quest. The sci-fi film about the cast of a Star Trek-style TV show that's recruited to go on an actual intergalactic mission is fondly remembered for its meta-humor and its heart. Yet the film, released 20 years ago on Dec. 25, 1999, did not make an immediate splash. It opened in seventh place at the box office, though it slowly found an audience during its theatrical run — where its box office actually went up in its second weekend — and especially on home video.
The DreamWorks film originally had Ghostbusters star Harold Ramis attached to direct and later endured postproduction battles to make it more kid-friendly, which saw an F-bomb cut and more risqué moments excised as well. It also suffered from a sparse marketing campaign that its key players say left money on the table for the film, which still managed to earn $90.6 million.
Heat Vision breakdown
To delve into what really happened on the set of Galaxy Quest and beyond, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with director Dean Parisot, producer Mark Johnson and stars Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Long, Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni and Missi Pyle, who reflect on the film’s legacy and future.
THE QUEST BEGINS
In the late '90s, Oscar and Emmy winning producer Mark Johnson had just solidified a deal with DreamWorks, then run by founding partners Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Johnson wasn't a sci-fi aficionado, but he saw something special in Galaxy Quest.
"I’m probably the last person to be doing science fiction, but then I read this script from David Howard. I saw the potential for humor in the concept of actors in space," Johnson tells THR.
Johnson and the producers hired writer Bob Gordon to take Howard’s concept and craft a new screenplay. Development on Galaxy Quest came as Johnson was in the midst of producing Home Fries, a romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson.
That 1998 rom-com saw Johnson partner with Parisot (the future director of Galaxy Quest), writer Vince Gilligan (the future creator of Breaking Bad, on which Johnson worked) and actor Daryl “Chill” Mitchell (Tommy Webber in Galaxy Quest). “That film had surprising ripple effects on my career,” Johnson says. “In fact, I had Dean read the new Bob Gordon Galaxy Quest script before it went out on the town.”
Parisot loved the action comedy, but DreamWorks was after a better-known commodity for its director. The studio hired Ghostbusters star Ramis to direct.
“I had a very peculiar lunch with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Harold Ramis,” Allen recalls. "Katzenberg pitched me the idea of the commander character and then they started talking and it became clear that Ramis didn’t see me for the part. It was pretty uncomfortable.”
Allen recalls that Ramis’ version of Galaxy Quest felt more like Spaceballs to him. “For some reason he was hung up on having an action star who could be funny, versus a comedian who could do action.”
Weaver, a three-time Oscar nominee at the time, was also frustrated by the casting parameters set forth by her former Ghostbusters co-star.
“I had heard that Harold was directing a sci-fi movie but he didn’t want anyone who had done sci-fi in the film,” Weaver says. “Frankly, it’s those of us who have done science fiction movies that know what is funny about the genre.”
Weaver lobbied for the role after reading the script and delving into the world of Gwen DeMarco/Lieutenant Tawny Madison. “I told them I know how to play this woman, and luckily the project stayed alive after Harold left.”
Allen, backed by the full support of the studio, came on board as the commander, followed closely by Weaver as the female lead.
Despite an unhappy parting, Johnson recalls that Ramis did reach out to him after seeing Galaxy Quest in theaters. “Harold was very gracious about how wrong he was, saying that it was a great film and that Tim Allen was a fantastic commander,” Johnson says.
When Ramis left the film, the start of production was fast approaching and DreamWorks needed a replacement director whom they could trust. Johnson went straight to Parisot, whose most notable credit at that time was directing Home Fries.
“I called Dean and said basically that this was his film and let’s go sell DreamWorks on you,” Johnson says. “I love Dean, but sometimes he has to be kicked into things. He wanted to reread the script again and make sure it was right for him. I remember those of us around him said, ‘Are you out of your mind? Of course you’re doing it!’”
When Johnson and Parisot met with DreamWorks, it took the endorsement of Johnson and the passion of both men to sell the executives on the unfamiliar director. “They didn’t really know Dean and there was nothing quite like this film in his background,” Johnson says. “It took some real effort, but he was the perfect choice.”
Parisot’s primary goal was to make a great Star Trek film, with the caveat of having some absurd characters added to the mix. “I see comedy as tragedy, so I looked at the film as a drama that happened to be funny,” Parisot says.
BUILDING THE CREW
“We all came from different places as actors, and the film was certainly a risk,” Allen recalls. “Particularly for Sigourney, who had just finished a space film with Alien Resurrection and this was a gutsy turn for her. She did a really great job playing this insecure actress who wasn’t the hero.”
Allen, who was a big sci-fi fan going into the project, recalls pushing to inject more sci-fi into the film.
“Dean didn’t put a heavy emphasis on the sci-fi elements as much as I did,” Allen says, recalling a particular scene. “As we’re disembarking from the landing on a foreign planet, I said, ‘Hey wait, we can’t just land here…somebody has to take a tricorder reading of the atmosphere. Does it have oxygen?’”
Parisot would always lend an ear to Allen’s concerns. “I told Dean that all the sci-fi people are going to hate this if we cut corners,” Allen says. “Ultimately, Tony Shalhoub just goes, ‘I’ll figure something out,' because he was the first one walking off the ship.”
Allen recalls with glee the improvisation of both Shalhoub and Sam Rockwell. “Rockwell did this great thing where he basically echoed my concerns, but in character and totally freaking out,” Allen says. “Then Tony just steps off the ship, takes a couple breaths and says, ‘Seems OK.’ We worked through the problem and we did it with comedy.”
Allen also recalls numerous times that the cast elevated the material and each others’ performances with the creative space that Parisot allowed. “Every one of those actors brought open hearts, generosity and intelligence to their parts,” Allen says. “I think of Enrico Colantoni and all the Thermians' mannerisms and noises that he came up with…it was ingenious and difficult as hell to act opposite.”
Weaver joined the cast soon after Parisot became the director.
“The first thing I said to Dean was that Lieutenant Tawny Madison had to be blonde, and she had to have big boobs,” Weaver says with a laugh. “I loved Twany from the first moment I read the part, to me she was what a lot of women feel like, including myself, in a Hollywood situation.”
Weaver’s take on the role captured the inherent insecurities of actors, who have the knowledge that they can be replaced at any time. Weaver enjoyed exploring her character’s genuine affection for Allen’s flawed Commander Taggert. “He doesn’t want to commit, but my character’s clock is ticking,” Weaver says. “Tawny is attracted to the commander’s sympathetic side, which only slightly outweighs his obnoxious side.”
Weaver found Allen embodied several of the commander’s better qualities. “Tim is very charismatic as the commander, but he’s not afraid to make fun on himself, which is a key to that role,” Weaver says. “When Tim is not playing the commander and he’s playing the actor Jason Nesmith. It’s adorable to see that human side.”
As for herself, Weaver finds more in common with her Galaxy Quest role than Ripley from Aliens. “I scream when I see a spider,” she says, laughing. “I felt like I was telling the truth about myself and science fiction through Tawny in Galaxy Quest.
Shalhoub was sent the Galaxy Quest script and offered a meeting with Parisot. “It wasn’t an audition so much as a general sit-down, I believe I met for Sam Rockwell’s role of Guy Fleegman,” Shalhoub says.
Shalhoub had heard that Rockwell was still considering the role, and soon after the meeting, he got a call confirming that Rockwell was taking the part. Luckily, another call came for the Emmy- and Tony-winning actor. This time Shalhoub was reading for Fred Kwan/Tech Sergeant Chen.
Having read the script, Shalhoub was slightly confused by the offer. “The character seemed to be written for an Asian guy, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he says. “I told them I was happy to meet with Dean again, but I wanted to know if the role was going to change or at least maybe change the name.”
Parisot told Shalhoub that the name would stay the same, but the two began collaborating on a new take for the role of Fred Kwan. “There wasn’t that much for the character in the initial script,” Parisot says. “Tony jumped on this idea I had to base it on David Carradine’s persona in the series Kung Fu.”
Shalhoub recalls watching the pilot of Kung Fu and seeing Carradine seemingly operate on another plane of existence compared with the rest of the cast. “I’d heard he was high the entire time, and whether it was true or not, we used that as a jumping-off point for Fred Kwan,” Shalhoub says. “It’s 1999, 15 years after the Galaxy Quest TV series ended, and Fred Kwan is just a burnout with one foot outside reality.”
As they developed the new take, Parisot and Shalhoub realized that nearly all the script’s dialogue for Fred Kwan would have to be tossed. “My character still speaks when he was supposed to in the script, but we had to come up with things as we went along,” Shalhoub says. “The other castmembers would then have to adjust to what Dean and I were doing with the character.”
One of Shalhoub’s favorite scenes is where his character is “beamed-up” to the ship a few seconds after the rest of the crew. While the rest of the crew is freaking out (Rockwell screams like a child for a good seven seconds), Fred Kwan is completely chill about the intergalactic travel. “Playing this guy who was unfazed by all the outrageous things transpiring around him was fantastic,” Shalhoub says. “He’s really operating in another zone. I also came up with this gag where he had a paper bag with him at all times which holds his snacks.”
Parisot loved the idea of the stoner’s snack bag. “There’s a lot more of Tony eating with the munchies out of that paper bag that we had to cut,” Parisot recalls with a laugh. Shalhoub liked the juxtaposition of a tech aficionado who carries a simple brown bag. “Because he’s a tech guy, you might think he would be into gadgets and devices, but instead he just carries this paper bag with his snacks.”
Shalhoub appreciated Parisot’s willingness to try out new ideas. “God knows he didn’t like all the things I pitched,” Shalhoub says with a laugh. “I pitched him the Thermian group hug in engineering, and then this silly minor joke.”
When the cast arrives on an alien planet to locate a new Beryllium Sphere, they see this group of alien children in front of mine shafts. “We see the little blue guys, and I told the cast we should get the minors joke in and everyone was saying, ‘What?’” Shalhoub recalls. “So finally they let me have this absurd line that the aliens couldn’t be more than three or four years old. Lines like that helped reinforce the idea that Fred was just a little off in the head.”
Shalhoub also recalls the Grabthar’s hammer moment between Alan Rickman’s Dr. Lazarus and Patrick Breen’s Quelleck, citing it as a standout moment for Parisot’s direction. “That moment between Alan and Patrick, it’s so beautiful and a real tribute to Dean’s skill that he could score with all the comedic moments in the film and still deliver incredible heartfelt moments.”
For the role of the alien Mathesar, Parisot chose Colantoni, who was busy filming the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me when he got the script. “I remember reading the script outside Aroma cafe in Studio City,” Colantoni says. “I got to the part where Tommy [Daryl Mitchell] is flying the ship out of the dock and he scrapes the side of the ship against the dock wall for what seems like forever. That cracked me up.”
Colantoni was so impressed with the material that he decided to work several days on crafting his audition and defining the mannerisms of Mathesar and the Thermian race.
Colantoni met with Parisot several times and recalls it always being fun and collaborative. “Dean was great about letting me try things,” Colantoni says. “Dean was on board with organizing a week of what we called ‘Thermian school,’ where we’d rehearse the vocal and physical mannerisms with the rest of the Thermian actors.”
By the time Colantoni was cast, everyone was on board except for Rockwell. Colantoni assumed that the agents were hammering out a better deal, but Rockwell was actually having serious concerns about the role of nameless crewman Guy Fleegman.
“I auditioned for the part, but once I got it I was reluctant to play Guy Fleegman,” Rockwell recalls. The actor had just booked the lead role in an independent film and he was more focused on building a career in the vein of Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis than a guy in a sci-fi comedy.
“Then I thought about Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Michael Keaton in Night Shift.” Rockwell recalls. "I figured I could play Guy Fleegman and still do The Deer Hunter. I can play a buffoon and then turn it around with a versatile role in the next film.”
Rockwell also notes that his film The Green Mile was being released around the same time, which helped offset any perceived typecasting from the comedic role.
Parisot recalls Rockwell’s audition for Guy Fleegman as inspired and hilarious, and laments not having a copy of the tape. “He started weeping mid-audition, being consumed by fear like any human would in an alien encounter. He played it authentically and it was perfect.”
During this period of uncertainty with Rockwell, Parisot attempted to sway the future Oscar winner’s mind with a gag gift. “Sammy kept saying he wasn’t feeling well when I’d bring it up, so I sent him an entire case of Kaopectate,” Parisot says. “It must have worked!”
Once Rockwell’s accepted the role Guy Fleegman, he played it as realistically as possible. “I was constantly pacing and drinking coffee to try to get crazy and make myself insanely scared,” Rockwell says. “What’s great about Bill Paxton in Aliens is that he’s playing it authentic, he’s really scared and that’s what makes it funny…so I went for that.”
For Pyle, Galaxy Quest came just as she had moved from New York to Los Angeles, and Galaxy Quest was having trouble casting the role of Laliari. “When I got [to the audition], they showed me a video of Jed Rees portraying a Thermian," she recalls. "When I saw that silly Thermian smile, I completely understood the character.”
Pyle was surprised when casting director Debra Zane stapled her Casting Society of America card to her audition and sent it to Parisot saying that the actor must be cast. “Apparently she said she’d resign from the film if Dean didn’t cast me,” Pyle recalls.
Parisot also remembers the moment with a laugh. “I’ve done so many films with Debbie Zane, and she’s always saying outrageous things like I’ll jump off a building if you don’t cast this person,” Parisot says. “And that was exactly the case here.”
Pyle initially wasn’t supposed to have a romantic interest in Fred Kwan (Shalhoub), but that evolved as the creatives realized Weaver had the only other female role in the main cast. “It ended up that I got to do the whole rest of the film with the cast, which was so exciting for me at that stage of my career,” Pyle says. “I had a part in As Good As It Gets, but that was very small compared to this.”
For Long, the role of sci-fi geek Brandon came at the perfect time. The 20-year-old had just dropped out of school and only recently gotten an agent. “This all happened because I went in for a pilot, which was subsequently picked up after we filmed Galaxy Quest,” Long says. “The casting director for the pilot was Bonnie Zane."
It turns out that Bonnie Zane’s sister, Debra, was the casting director for Galaxy Quest. “Bonnie told Debra that I might be right for this part, and they got me the audition,” Long says. “It was my first big film audition, and I remember being in the waiting room with actors I recognized. Anytime I think about this movie, I think of how much I owe the Zane sisters.”
Unlike Allen, Long didn’t have a particular fascination with science fiction. The draw for him was working with the likes of Allen, Weaver, Rickman, Shalhoub and Rockwell. “What helped me prepare was a documentary that Dean gave called Trekkies," says Long. "I got so many great insights into that deep fanatical love that people have for these shows.”
When Mitchell was approached for the role of ship’s pilot Tommy Webber, he considered it his sophomore year in the school of Dean Parisot. “Dean and I had a great time on Home Fries and he said, ‘Chill, I think you’d be great for this role, I need you to come in and audition,’” Mitchell says. The young actor felt safe with Parisot and blew everyone away with his audition.
Mitchell also recalls one instance where he shocked the crew in the presence of executive producer Spielberg.
“I was joking around with everyone in between takes and I saw Spielberg talking with one of the producers at the water cooler,” Mitchell says. “I yelled out, ‘Man, I’m working so hard. Hey Steven, get me a water.’ Without breaking conversation, Steven bent over, grabbed a bottle and tossed it to me. The cast couldn’t believe I did that, but Steven was too cool for school.”
THE MAGIC OF ALAN RICKMAN
In some ways, the tension between Rickman's dramatic background and Allen's comedic one is responsible for the film's success.
“There were a couple rehearsals where we rewrote some things sitting around the table,” Rockwell says. “Alan Rickman was very instrumental in making sure the script hit the dramatic notes, and everything had a strong logic and reason behind it. He wanted the Grabthar’s hammer moment to be set up perfectly so it had that emotion when he delivered it to Patrick Breen, who is a fantastic actor.”
Mitchell recalls his and Allen’s comedic riffing would get into Rickman’s head: “Tim would go on a 10-minute rant and I would look at Alan Rickman, and God bless him, he was by the letter…always focused on the preparation…even though it was a comedy, Alan Rickman approached that movie like any drama.”
That doesn’t mean the serious thespian was without a sense of humor.
“Tim and I would do this dumb thing where we’d just say, ‘I am Spartacus’ all the time,” Mitchell shares. “One day out of nowhere, Alan Rickman went Spartacus and we all laughed big time. But then Tim went for another 10 minutes and you could tell that Alan was regretting that choice, man.”
Rockwell remembers Rickman, who died of cancer in 2016, throwing a party for the cast after they wrapped. “I think the party was at Largo,” Rockwell says. “Alan was a sweet beautiful man, and I have a great appreciation for everyone in our cast.”
Allen echoes the comments on Rickman. “We all became pretty good friends off this, which isn’t the norm in this business,” Allen says. “I think of these guys and Sigourney all the time.”
COMPLETING THE MISSION
As enjoyable as the environment was on set, Johnson and Parisot recall many difficulties in postproduction and marketing.
“DreamWorks didn’t know what to make of the film,” Johnson says. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say they didn’t believe in it, but it wasn’t what they felt like they ordered.” For Weaver, she’d had a similar feeling for much longer.
“To me, they didn’t seem particularly interested in what we were doing, which gave us more freedom during the shoot,” Weaver says. “But at the last minute DreamWorks decided it needed a movie to go up against Stuart Little, the mouse movie. So, they chose this one and started making cuts to the film.”
Weaver notes that along with an F-bomb she shot, several of Rickman’s scenes were cut because they were a little kinky for a family audience.
“That all had to go so they could make it a kids movie, which is such a shame,” Weaver says. “I would buy Galaxy Quest with the cut scenes added back just to see Alan doing some of those scenes. This was a very sophisticated picture, and they could have had a wider audience with the more adult-take on the Star Trek of it.”
Pyle recalls the changes DreamWorks made to achieve a more palatable, kid-friendly film.
“Sigourney’s Lieutenant Madison character is fully dressed for the first half the film,” Pyle recalls. “Then suddenly her bra is showing for the rest of the movie. The explanation was lost when they cut a funny scene where Lieutenant Madison tries to seduce the alien villains.”
Parisot recalls the specific details of the scene, where two aliens get the drop on Allen’s commander Taggert and Weaver’s lieutenant Madison. One of the aliens finds himself strangely attracted to Weaver’s character and his fellow soldier is disgusted by his friend’s “perversion.” The sequence, ultimately comparing an alien’s attraction to a human as bestiality, did not survive the DreamWorks axe.
Pyle also recalls when Weaver’s character dropped the F-bomb in the climax. “I think they changed it to ‘frill’ or something silly. I don’t think we ever had an intention of making it as kids-friendly as DreamWorks wanted.”
Parisot still regrets that the F-bomb was cut. “That moment where she swears got so many laughs, it was a shame they cut it,” Parisot says. “I purposefully dubbed it really badly so it would stick out.”
"We never felt the campaign did the movie justice. The movie was successful with over $90 million in earnings, but this film should have done twice that," says Johnson. "The home video sales were incredible.”
Parisot echoes those comments, even sharing an apology he received from DreamWorks' Katzenberg. “Most films fall off during the second weekend and we were seeing Galaxy Quest climb in its second weekend and climb again during its third weekend,” Parisot says. “Jeffrey called me during the second weekend and said, ‘I think we screwed up the advertising for this. I’m sorry.’”
Weaver recalls Allen going to Australia to promote the film, but otherwise there was no major publicity for the Christmas ’99 release. “It was a bigger hit than they expected with no publicity, and we could have had even larger numbers.”
On top of an underwhelming and unclear vision for the marketing campaign, one of the film’s key selling points wasn’t available for the film’s trailers. “Many of the special effects were still being worked on very late in the process,” Johnson says. “The space sequences would have been a great selling point for the film, they still look great in the movie 20 years later.”
THE TV MISSION THAT NEVER WAS
In 2015, news broke that Galaxy Quest was going to get new life as a TV show, but it wasn't to be.
“We were going to a sequel series at one point,” Rockwell recalls. “But after Alan Rickman passed, we didn’t know what to do with the story.”
“I know that they were talking about shooting dates and Sam told me Alan was on board, but he was going to have to miss the first episode,” Long recalls. “This was before he knew he was as sick as he was. It would have been so fun to get everyone together again.”
“I hadn’t read any scripts, but Dean called me up and he was developing it for one of the streamers,” Weaver recalls. “I ran into Alan Rickman and asked him what he thought of the series, and he said that he didn’t really know.” Weaver notes that they were in a crowded place and she now realizes it was next to impossible for them to discuss his illness. “I had no idea until I was told.”
Colantoni recalls the non-starter sequel limited series that involved a storyline with younger Thermians. “I was given the broad strokes and it seemed to be moving forward but then Alan died and that halted things,” Colantoni says. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really like the idea. We had lightning in a bottle with the first film, and I want to have that same feeling when I hear the pitch for the next one.”
Allen still thinks back fondly on the trailblazing film.
“We haven’t been able to put anything together since Alan’s passing, and I would love to bring everyone together again,” Allen says.
The actor has one strong memory from set, a day in which he had to do a particularly dramatic scene where he confesses to the aliens that Galaxy Quest was merely a TV show.
Allen had to fight his instincts as a comic in order to remain present. “If I wasn’t making people laugh, I felt like I wasn’t doing my job,” he says. “So I really tried to stay in that moment and play it real, and ignore that it felt phony.” Luckily, Allen was assuaged of any concerns by his director, castmates and a special set visitor that day. “Of all days for Spielberg to visit the set, he was there for my confession scene,” Allen recalls. “Steven walked past me after, and I wonder if he would remember this, but he said, ‘That was really well done.’”
by Aaron Couch, Graeme McMillan