Just over 30 years ago, a smash-hit romantic drama-cum-thriller-cum-musical was released in cinemas, heralding the acting debut of Whitney Houston opposite Hollywood golden boy Kevin Costner.
The Bodyguard may not have been warmly received by critics at the time – and earned 1993’s leading haul of Razzie nominations with seven (winning none) – but it also finished as the second highest-grossing film of the year behind Aladdin, and with two Oscar nominations.
It must also take credit for unleashing on the world what remains the best-selling movie soundtrack of all time; thanks to Houston’s powerhouse vocals on tracks like Run To You, I Have Nothing and, of course, her iconic cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, The Bodyguard’s soundtrack has sold over 45 million copies.
In November, it had a theatrical re-release in cinemas to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
Director Mick Jackson remembers it as ‘an unusual movie’ for the time, with its combination of genres as well as songs that ‘fell organically into the structure of the film’ so that its untested leading lady could take advantage of the story being told primarily through The Bodyguard’s music.
As Jackson puts it, the film was ‘in development hell’ for years, after screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan initially penned it in 1975. Its first stars were supposed to be Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, then Ross and Ryan O’Neal, before a later version swapped singing for stand-up with Whoopi Goldberg eyed up for the lead role.
It finally found a home when Kevin Costner came on board in the early 90s to play the titular role, Frank Farmer, working alongside Kasdan to get cameras on The Bodyguard rolling, and casting Houston.
They still needed to find a director though, with Jackson, now 79, telling Metro.co.uk: ‘I got 12 versions [of the screenplay] to read after taking a call out of the blue at home from Kevin Costner, which is something of a surprise. He said, “Kevin Costner here, I’m making a movie with Whitney Houston, and I’m interested to see if you want to direct it?” So I gulped, and said, “Why me?” By that point, Kevin had won two Oscars for Dances with Wolves. “Why doesn’t he do it himself? It’s a Larry Kasdan script, why isn’t he directing it?’”’
The Emmy and Bafta winner explained that Costner and Kasdan had been impressed with his film LA Story, starring Steve Martin, which they felt demonstrated a knowledge of the city. They also hoped he could guide them through the music business and the world of MTV music videos.
After reading through all the different versions of the script, Jackson opted for the original and set about sorting updates.
‘It had a real fresh quality to it that the other scripts didn’t,’ he remembers. ‘Every time you go into another rewrite, and different people are brought on, you lose something. I thought the original thing that Larry wrote had action and conflict, but in the middle of it, that relationship between the bodyguard and the woman he’s supposedly prepared to take a bullet for had a kind of sweetness to it – the love that cannot be.’
Jackson, also known for directing Volcano and Denial, joined only a couple of weeks before production was due to begin and quickly scheduled a meeting with star Houston in New York City.
He called their dinner together ‘very strange’, due to the fact her real bodyguard was watching from the door and that she’d arrived in a Rolls Royce stretch limousine, meaning it was ‘kind of like art meeting life’.
Houston played Rachel Marron, a music superstar and Oscar-nominated actress who is being sent death threats by a stalker, but the singer was aware of her possible limitations in the role.
‘We talked about it, and she said, “Look, I’m not an actress, I’m a singer. How are we going to do this? Should I take acting lessons?” And I said, “No, no, you can’t learn really how to act in a week.”’
‘The central problem when you’ve got something like this which is about a singer – do you take an actress who’s a really good actress and teach her how to sing like Whitney Houston, which is virtually impossible in two weeks, or do you take Whitney as she actually is, a singing superstar essentially playing herself?’ Jackson puts forward.
However, he and Costner had no qualms they had made the right choice, with Jackson describing it as ‘no competition’ and Costner likening her to ‘a thoroughbred’.
Jackson says that she was ‘very, very smart’ too, and adds: ‘Everybody wanted her to succeed, so we all had her back.
‘I told her what I think is the main secret of movie acting, which is – don’t act. The secret is that the camera can photograph your thoughts, you don’t have to do anything!’
Jackson acknowledges that it wasn’t ‘a real stretch’ for Houston to play a superstar and remembers her – who tragically accidentally drowned in her bathtub aged just 48 in 2012 – as ‘a wonderful person’ whom he loved.
‘I know she got panned a lot for her acting, but her acting was kind of secondary to her singing. The songs are actually going to carry the film’s emotion. That’s the secret of the film’s success.’
I Have Nothing was inspired by Jackson’s memory of Dame Shirley Bassey singing similar lyrics for I Who Have Nothing in the mid-1960s – and it was apparently Costner who suggested that spine-tingling full octave leap in the last verse, which Jackson directly attributes to it being one of the songs that was nominated for an Academy Award.
When it comes to what is the most popular recording for The Bodyguard, and the track that became Houston’s signature song, Jackson reveals we almost had a very different musical choice, however.
‘I Will Always Love You wasn’t always the main song for the movie. Originally, Kevin was interested in pitching various songs, including some by The Allman Brothers. The one he really seemed to get fixated on though was Jimmy Ruffin’s hit from 1966, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. Everybody said, “Yeah it’s a good song, but it’s a bit of a downer. We really need something that is a bit more emotionally uplifting at the end.” Somebody then suggested, what about that Dolly Parton song, I Will Always Love You, which was a country song she’d done in 1974.’
The rest, of course, is film history.
The song plays over the end scene when Rachel and Frank say goodbye at the airport – and Jackson had another classic airport parting from the movies in mind.
‘At the end, when she runs to him from the plane, it echoes for me the impossible relationship like at the end of Casablanca. We shot it at Van Nuys Airport, which is over in the valley in LA where [parts of] that scene from the ending of Casablanca was actually shot.
‘So I found a propeller plane that is very similar to one that was in Casablanca and put it in the background.’
The romantic final goodbye kiss, where Rachel boards the plane after saying farewell to Frank only to disembark again before take-off and run into his arms for their final clinch, caused a bit of a (literal) headache for the poor camera operator too as the team worked to achieve the 360° pans at a time when Steadicams weren’t widely used in movies.
Instead, they used tracks, following Rachel’s run in a long straight stretch before switching points like on a railroad and sending the camera onto a circular track to circle Costner and Houston’s embrace.
Jackson confesses: ‘When we shot it, the first take was so good and the camera was going so fast in a circle that the centrifugal force threw the camera operator off his seat, but the cameras still went on because the dolly grips were still pushing – and he ran and caught up and climbed back on again. And that’s the shot that in the movie!’
However, Jackson notes that after all of that, ‘it didn’t even make the cut for the MTV Movie Award for best kiss’.
The actual recording of I Will Always Love You was the last thing shot for the movie and filmed in the Grand Ballroom at the Fontainebleau Hotel Miami. This on-set recording version was what was used as well for the song’s release, the memory of which moves Jackson to tears.
‘She sang it a cappella, and then a simple backing track behind it when the music comes in, but the orchestra was added later. Normally when you shoot something for a movie and it then gets released as a song, you re-record it in the recording studio. But this was just, I mean the chills…’
Practically speaking, Jackson reveals he was trying to get the script cut down even before shooting began, aware of the $25million (£20m) budget and the fact that a film like The Bodyguard was unlikely to run longer than two hours. However, Costner apparently had an unusual explanation for why he thought it was worth shooting his preferred longer version regardless.
‘He said – and this is a wonderfully ridiculous analogy – it’s like the Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey. You wrap strips of bacon round it and, although you throw them away at the end, they actually make the thing much juicier. So, his theory was that he should actually act [in], and we should actually film, these extra scenes, knowing that they would probably get cut at the end so he could, in himself, store the juice from those.
‘I think it actually pushed the budget up by about $10m (£8m), doing that, after I promised Warners I’d try and stay on budget…’
In the end, Jackson, Kasdan and Costner all presented their own cuts of The Bodyguard to the studio, with them opting to use much of Jackson’s version.
Mick Jackson on misconceptions about Whitney Houston
‘A lot of people think of her as somebody who made wrong choices. We all make wrong choices. But she had a vulnerability about her and a sweetness about her, as well as the fact she could be a fearsome diva.
‘But, for example, I remember when we had the premiere in LA of The Bodyguard and my dad came over from England with his girlfriend. I was trying to find a place for them to sit in the auditorium and Whitney was shouting out from the back, “Hey, make space for Mick’s mum, come on, move out of there,” which she didn’t have to do it. She couldn’t have been nicer. I’m just really sorry the way it ended for her.’
‘They said, “We think this is going to be a home run for us,” meaning this is going to blow all the records. It’s not going to be a critically acclaimed film, but this is going to hit the spot. I’ve got to say that in the years afterwards, I got so many drinks from stewardesses on planes when they learned I was the director of The Bodyguard! It’s literally intoxicating.’
Jackson also shared some fun behind the scenes anecdotes from the making of the movie, including the fact they ran out of snow near Lake Tahoe for the cabin scenes, having to ‘truck it in by the lorryload from up in the mountains’, as well as Costner springing his infamous crew cut on his director with no warning, resulting in its own Razzie nomination in the ‘worst new star’ category.
‘I hadn’t realised he was going do this, but he was absolutely right to do it. He’d been looking at pictures of Secret Service men and he went and got this crew cut and everyone said, “He can’t be the romantic hero with a haircut like that!” And, of course, he was, and the movie works on that dynamic. He was a straightlaced guy with his own ethos, and here’s a woman with her own drive, and they can’t possibly fall in love – and they do.’
They also had their own instance of life mirroring art after ‘a vague suggestion that someone weird was stalking the set’ resulted in bodyguards for The Bodyguard.
‘So, for some scenes – I mean, there’s one in the movie where he [Costner as Frank] realises that the limousine he’s in with Whitney is being followed by a car, and then the car makes off and he tries to catch up with it. Well, he had his own bodyguard for real who had to run with him and was really chasing the SUV! So again, art and life.’
Of the film’s legacy and continued popularity, Jackson is grateful as he knows that nothing like that is ever guaranteed.
‘I’ve learned that unless you get it right when you’re actually putting the film finally to bed, it will never be right. It doesn’t age like a good Scotch whisky on the shelf.’
Watching any of his films now, he also can’t help himself in casting a critical eye over his past calls with cuts and close-ups.
‘It’s very satisfying when you realise that the decisions you took at the time were the right ones. It’s awful when they weren’t! I think some things I might have done differently now [with The Bodyguard], but the film is what it is, and I have enjoyed it when it has been re-released, knowing what it is and that it can still move people.’