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This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Michael Eisner was passed over as Paramount chairman in favor of Frank Mancuso in 1984, one casualty was Joe Dante‘s Explorers. The unfinished film about three kids building a spaceship from a TV set and basement junk was rushed into release early in the summer of 1985.
“At least the boys were able to get their contraption off the ground in the film,” read THR‘s review, “which is more than this monstrosity is likely to do for Paramount at the box office.” (The film grossed $9.9 million, less than half its budget.) Today, Dante is only half-joking when he calls Explorers “my Magnificent Ambersons,” referring to Orson Welles’ famously studio-mangled work. However, the film did mark the feature debuts of the late River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke, who was 13 when he arrived for a casting call.
“Ethan wasn’t an actor,” says Dante. “He was a kid who came along with another kid. He had these big braces and was gawky, but I thought, ‘Why not? Let’s see if he can act.’ He was able to be genuine and likable and the movie was essentially built around his character.” Hawke, now 44, had been born in Austin to a 17-year-old mother and an 18-year-old father who divorced before he was 3. He lived everywhere from Georgia to Vermont until his mother remarried when he was 10 and settled in New Jersey. Four years after Explorers, he landed a memorable part as a shy teen in 1989’s Oscar-winning Dead Poets Society, then transitioned into grown-up roles, includ- ing the Richard Linklater-directed Before Sunrise in 1995. Linklater and Hawke reunited for this summer’s critical and box-office success Boyhood, their eighth feature together, chronicling a boy’s life from age 6 to 18.
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