Filmed in something called ‘Supermarionation’ — the Andersons’ self-styled puppetry technique, combining marionettes and miniature models — the hugely popular series was set in the year 2065, and centred around a secret organisation known as International Rescue, whose raison d’être is to keep a constant vigil for danger anywhere in the world, and swoop to advert disaster where possible. The organisation, which operates from a secret base on an island somewhere in the South Pacific, is overseen by former astronaut and self-made millionaire Jeff Tracy. His five sons — Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John (named after the first five American astronauts in space) — act as field operatives, each in charge of one of the five futuristic rescue craft known as the Thunderbirds. Scott, Jeff’s eldest son, flies Thunderbird 1, a 7,000 mph, swing-wing, rocket-powered flying machine with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities. Virgil pilots Thunderbird 2, a huge green aircraft which ferries pods containing a wide variety of sophisticated vehicles — including The Mole, a mobile drill, and The Thunderizer, a laser cannon — to danger zones. Former racing driver Alan Tracy pilots the orange spacecraft Thunderbird 3. Youngest son Gordon is Virgil’s co-pilot, and also commands the yellow submarine Thunderbird 4, conveyed to disaster areas by Thunderbird 2. Finally, John mans the space station Thunderbird 5, from which vantage point he can detect disaster before it happens.
Although the year 2065 has more than its fair share of natural disasters, an equal number are man-made, often at the hands of The Hood, a tyrannical villain with mysterious hypnotic powers who seeks to destroy International Rescue — after first learning the secrets of its Thunderbirds craft. Assisting the brothers are a diverse assortment of supporting characters: Brains, the bespectacled genius whose scientific abilities are in direct contrast to his social skills; Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, International Rescue’s rich, elegant and glamorous London agent, who is chauffeured around in her pink gadget-laden six-wheel Rolls Royce (registration number FAB 1) by Parker, a Cockney ex-criminal whose nefarious skills are often called upon to help the Tracy brothers out of a sticky situation; Kyrano, Jeff Tracy’s loyal manservant, whose fraternal relationship to The Hood renders him vulnerable to the villain’s hypnotic powers; and finally, Tin-Tin, Kyrano’s daughter, an electronics expert who works with Brains.
When Thunderbirds concluded in 1966 after thirty-two hour-long episodes, International Rescue was not yet ready to shut its doors, and the Tracy brothers subsequently starred in two feature-length films written by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson: Thunderbirds Are Go! (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968). The Andersons eventually left the puppets behind, however, in favour of live-action series such as Space: 1999, whose cast — including Martin Landau and his real-life wife (and Mission: Impossible co-star) Barbara Bain — was often accused of acting that was more wooden than the Thunderbirds puppets. Despite a return to puppetry with the 1983 sci-fi series Terrahawks, Anderson was unable to repeat the success of Thunderbirds, which spawned a Japanese-made cartoon update, Thunderbirds 2086, in 1986. The original series also continued to enjoy periodic revivals as each new generation of children discovered the joys of Supermarionation — most notably in 1991, when repeats of the show achieved unprecedented ratings and a Tracy Island playset became one of the fastest-selling toys in history; and 2000, when the first DVD releases appeared.
More frustrating for Gerry Anderson — now an MBE and, in his seventies, still taking an active interest in the television industry — was the fact that, when Thunderbirds was first mooted as a big budget feature film in the early nineties, the show’s creator was offered no role in its development. “I was approached for the possibility of my being a consultant on the picture,” he told SFX, “and I met the producer, who wrote to me after a couple of days, saying, ‘Lovely to meet you Gerry, but you know we really have enough creative people on the crew, so we can’t take on another person,’ which I thought was about the biggest insult that could be made. They came to me because I made the show and invented it, and the moment we talk about going into production, they talk about a writer — and, worse, an American writer… who was immediately sent to London to watch all the episodes because he hadn’t seen the show.”
The writer in question was Chicken Run scriptwriter Karey Kirkpatrick. “My heart goes out to any writer or creator who’s being pushed aside,” he says, “but if I look at Thunderbirds, I could look at it the other way around — where does this British guy get off writing about five American brothers and their American father in a show that’s patterned after Bonanza, a quintessential American Western? The only two British characters in the whole piece are Lady Penelope and Parker, and it really tries to be American. So it’s like, isn’t turnabout fair play?”
Kirkpatrick got his break in Hollywood co-writing a ‘spec’ script for Disney, which, although unproduced, led to credits on The Rescuers Down Under, the direct-to-video sequel Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves and James and the Giant Peach. After working briefly on another unproduced Disney project entitled Me and My Shadow, Kirkpatrick wrote a script for Interscope, a US subsidiary of PolyGram, which bought out ITC Entertainment in 1995 for $165 million, thereby acquiring the entire catalogue of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson creations. Of all of them, Thunderbirds was the one which PolyGram saw as having feature film potential. This belief was shared by PolyGram-owned production company Working Title, which inherited the project from Interscope and began seriously developing it in 1997, initially as a computer animated film in the style of Toy Story, but later as a live-action, puppet-free production.
Kirkpatrick is the first to admit that he had not heard of Thunderbirds when he was first approached to write the feature film adaptation of the classic series. “Interscope called me into a meeting and said, ‘We have something we think you’d be really right for,’” the writer recalls. “They said, ‘Do you know the Thunderbirds?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, as a kid I loved them,’ because I thought they were talking about the American formation flying team! So when they started talking about Lady Penelope and Parker and Supermarionation, I had to come clean and say, ‘Okay, stop. I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ I thought, ‘That’s it, I may as well leave now,’ but they said, ‘No, that’s good, because we need somebody to develop the movie who doesn’t know it all.’ I think they thought it was good that I wasn’t British, and that I wasn’t a devotee.”
In other words, the qualities that made Kirkpatrick unsuitable in Gerry Anderson’s eyes — his nationality and his ignorance of the series — were the very things that Interscope was looking for: a Hollywood writer who would not allow his reverence for the original show to interfere with his creation of a blockbuster. “Movie executives really don’t care if the film stays true to the show,” Kirkpatrick told SFX, “because in their eyes, it [has] to play in the American market, and subsequently at the world-wide box office.” Thus, the writer was given a copy of a story treatment written by British director Peter Hewitt (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey) and a video cassette of the original pilot episode, and returned the following day with some story ideas. Within a couple of months, Kirkpatrick was in London, developing the script with Hewitt while the latter was in pre-production on The Borrowers.
Hewitt had first heard about the Thunderbirds film through Scott Kroopf, who had produced Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and had pursued the project ever since. “I kept my tabs on Thunderbirds for years, since the early nineties,” he says, “but it was tied up in all sorts of legal problems for ages, and I remember that at one point [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director] Steve Barron was interested.” Hewitt had been a fan of Thunderbirds since the age of four, “and it had the same appeal then as it does as an idea for a movie — this highly successful astronaut billionaire with his five handsome sons, living in a luxurious sort of ‘floating Batcave’ in the middle of the South Pacific. I think what kept my interest,” he adds, “was a fondness for fifties- and sixties-style futurism.” Hewitt pitched his idea to PolyGram president Michael Kuhn in 1996, finished a treatment soon afterwards, and then began work on the script. “But that’s when [Working Title co-founder] Tim Bevan offered me The Borrowers, so I met with a bunch of writers to carry on with the script I’d started, and me and Karey Kirkpatrick really hit it off. So I went off to do The Borrowers while he did the first draft of Thunderbirds.”
As part of his research, Kirkpatrick dutifully sat down and watched all thirty-two episodes of the original series, and went to the British Film Institute library to immerse himself in Thunderbirds lore. “Pete and I were thinking, ‘There’s a lot of really, really rich stuff in here,’” Kirkpatrick noted in 1998, adding that he and Hewitt were being “very diligent about staying as true to the series as we can, while still making it an exciting action movie.” Nevertheless, there were aspects of the series which Kirkpatrick knew would have to be altered. “There are some frustrating things in there when you’re a writer trying to create a movie for an audience that’s a tad more savvy,” he admitted. “Like, it’s a top secret organisation, and yet the brothers turn up and show their faces to everyone at the rescues. When they leave, they go, ‘Now remember, this is secret. Don’t talk.’ That’s not very clever. So it was part of my job, figuring out ways to keep their identities hidden and to really play up the fact that Jeff Tracy’s this billionaire who owns an island and has five rich playboy sons that the world thinks are these John F. Kennedy Jr types, born with silver spoons in their mouths, who don’t do anything. Nobody knows who International Rescue are. Even the US President doesn’t know who they are or where their secret base is.”
Kirkpatrick judged that his 150-page first draft of Thunderbirds would probably have cost more than Titanic. During subsequent rewrites, however, Kirkpatrick and Hewitt managed to reduce both the scale of the story and the extent of the special effects, without sacrificing the movie’s potential appeal as an action-adventure. The third draft, dated 24 October 1997, is set in the year 2026, and concerns a plot by The Hood to steal the Earth’s atmosphere on behalf of archvillain Thaddeus Stone, who is dying after twenty years of self-imposed exile on his failed moon colony. As Hewitt explains, “We took the idea that [because] Jeff Tracy was always so secretive about the technology, the worst thing that could happen to International Rescue would be that somebody steals the technology to destroy the world. So it was taking his worst fear and using it in the most dramatic way. We had a bad guy who lived on the moon, who had constructed a machine that would suck the atmosphere off the Earth and turn the moon into a little world for him to live on. But the final power source that he needed for the machine was the one that Brains had invented for Tracy Island, so his agenda was to find Tracy Island and steal the power core, and then destroy the world.” Says Kirkpatrick, “That whole moon plot was all Pete’s idea, and I thought that was really clever. And together we came up with this really interesting character called Thaddeus Stone, who talked with a computerised voice, like Stephen Hawking, and wore an exoskeleton because his muscles had atrophied after being on the moon, so he moves like a puppet.”
The story opens as a dozen scientists are abducted from Washington’s newly opened World Science Center by The Hood. The building promptly explodes, burying the President under tons of rubble — only to be rescued at the last minute by The Mole. “What we tried to do was have a series of events that felt unconnected,” says Hewitt, “so you were introduced to International Rescue doing what they do, and then it turns out that they are all small parts of the bad guy’s plan, and it all fits together. So it began with the kidnap of twelve top scientists who were all then taken to the moon, and they were all going to be forced to work together to achieve his mad dream.” A few disasters later — including an experimental atomic-powered airliner, the Skythrust, crashing into the face of Big Ben — Thaddeus Stone’s dastardly plan is thwarted, the world is saved, and even Brains finds romance.
Kirkpatrick admits that the scope of the script was over-ambitious, especially as the intention was to create a franchise which would have room in sequels for the ideas squeezed out of the first film. “It was an absolutely unruly piece of storytelling,” he says, “because I had these objectives: we had to see the Thunderbird crafts in action, so we needed set pieces in space, underwater and on the ground; and Pete wanted to see Tracy Island, and Lady Penelope in FAB 1… There was just a whole list of things that I had to accomplish.” Kirkpatrick suggested to Hewitt that the convoluted plot be simplified, so that the villain is The Hood himself, out to steal International Rescue’s secrets and reveal their identities, “because there’s this group of nefarious characters, and he’ll get a lot of money if he brings this to them [so] they can perform their dastardly deeds without International Rescue showing up. And I made this whole case, because my point was that, structurally, the threat was not direct. So I came up with something really simple, and Pete said, ‘You know what? You’re right. This feels really right.’ And then we pitched it to Tim Bevan, and he said, ‘What!? The moon/atmosphere-sucking thing is the best thing you’ve got!’ But it was clear it was going to be hugely expensive.”
One positive effect of Kirkpatrick’s efforts to tone down the action in the script was to place a greater emphasis on character. “The subplot, or character plot, was Alan being a bit of a loose cannon and deciding to quit the organisation because his father’s always yelling at him,” Hewitt recalls. “In the opening scene he takes an enormous risk and doesn’t communicate properly with Scott — I think Scott told him to abandon a certain part of the rescue and Alan thinks he can do it, and he does. But when he gets back to the island and he’s being torn off a strip by his father, he says, ‘But it worked!’ And you get the sense that this is always happening. Jeff’s side of it was, ‘You have to follow instructions! You have to report back to Scott! He’s in charge out there!’ I think that was my favourite scene, the one where Alan quits, because it was really quite moving and dramatic. But the film is also about Jeff realising that International Rescue isn’t a series of cool machines, it’s his sons working together, and their talents, and he learns that through them. So there was some very lofty character stuff in there, too, because we had to do the film as though these were real people.”
One of the difficulties faced by Hewitt and Kirkpatrick in turning the premise of the series into a potential blockbuster was giving the five brothers — effectively five leading roles — equal status in the story. “If you talk to Gerry Anderson,” says Hewitt, “he’ll tell you he never knew what to do with John, so he just shoved him up into space the whole time. So we did the same thing — we just threw him up in space — but we tried to make him pretty weird and interesting, a bit quirky and very good at languages, so he had some interesting character traits. But it was Alan’s movie, primarily, [because of] the rivalry between him and Scott, and the trouble between him and his father. But there were suggestions of romance between Jeff and Penelope, and the bad guy and Jeff had a past… It had some great stuff in it, like The Hood and Lady Penelope having a fist fight, and it turns out she’s a real dirty fighter! You’re expecting her to be this Lara Croft-type ninja, but she’s not — she’s just a real slugger. I really liked that.” Adds Kirkpatrick, “There was another scene in there which Pete really loved, which had a high-speed sightseeing train with a glass top that went around the whole country in an hour, stopping at all the major landmarks. And when it crashed, it had this state-of-the-art crash protection system which is that the whole thing filled with gel, so you’d be suspended, and within seven seconds it all slowly dissipated. So you’d be breathless for seven seconds and then you’d be okay. But that sequence had to be cut. I think we used [the idea] in FAB 1 instead.”
One of Hewitt’s more intriguing ideas was to avoid the trend towards increasingly sophisticated special effects in favour of a sixties-friendly, low-tech approach very much in tune with the Thunderbirds television series. “In terms of design,” he explains, “we took a lot from the show and also from [British sci-fi comic strip series] Dan Dare, in that it was a push-button, switch-pulling technology. It wasn’t run by computers; it was guys with very colourful and enormous machines, using brute strength to fly them around the world with a multitude of different, highly expensive pods.” Kirkpatrick also saw this ‘retro’ vision of the future as the perfect way to capture the spirit of the series. “The charm of the show is that it was made in 1965 and its view of the future is ‘atomic energy is good’ and so on,” he told SFX. “I remember in one of the first drafts I wrote, somebody picked up this cellphone, because I would try to use little things, and Pete would correct me and say, ‘No, everything has got to be big, bright and colourful machinery, with big switches and knobs.’” Thus, in contrast to most contemporary science fiction, in which the future is depicted as sleek, minimalist and miniaturised, Thunderbirds would offer a kind of ‘Fisher Price’ technology. “I really bought into that angle,” Kirkpatrick enthused. “I thought, ‘That is what will make this film unique — a big colourful version of the future.’”
Despite Gerry Anderson’s fears that an American writer would not be able to duplicate the quirky charm of the television Thunderbirds, Kirkpatrick’s knowing script, based on Hewitt’s story, expertly meshes fundamental elements of the original series with contemporary action-adventures, so that those familiar with International Rescue’s long history would feel that the film captured the spirit of Thunderbirds, while newcomers would not feel they had missed anything by not having seen the sixties series on which it was based. Brains, referring to an impromptu spaceflight by Thunderbird 2, could easily have been referring to Kirkpatrick’s script when he says to Scott, “It w-w-worked on paper.”
During this time, Gerry Anderson continued to be excluded from the development process, having little idea of the direction the Thunderbirds film was taking. Nevertheless, he told SFX, “I knew quite a lot of people who were working on it and all [I know] is what they told me. I know they spent a lot of money, [and] they did a lot of design work, a lot of which I’ve seen, because some of the people who were on the film have since come to me asking if I wanted to use their services… [But] frankly I didn’t think much of them.” One look at the colour pre-production sketches prepared by Hewitt’s design team suggests that Anderson’s view could be more like sour grapes than objective opinion, since the concepts — by Adam Brockbank, Julian Caldo, Temple Clark, Jane Clark and Joe Nimick III — are clearly inspired extrapolations of the original craft, adopting the basic colouring and shape but bringing them into the ‘future’. “I was really disappointed to hear that Gerry Anderson didn’t like the designs,” says Kirkpatrick. “I thought Pete and his team did a great job.”
In these artists’ renderings, Thunderbird 1 is a sleek silver swing-wing aircraft with a red nose cone, and the green and frog-like Thunderbird 2 is slightly more detailed than its predecessor, with extra aerofoils and jet intakes. The bright red Thunderbird 3 takes the original’s shape, refines it, but also adds extra technology, while the yellow Thunderbird 4 submersible is broken into two separable stages: a rear section with fins and the primary thrusters, and an opening front section containing the cockpit and various exterior underwater apparatus. The orange and white Thunderbird 5 is typically unaerodynamic, being built for outer space, and is covered with communications antennae and solar panels. “The idea was that when you look at them, if you know Thunderbirds, you’d go, ‘Wow, that’s Thunderbird 2,’” says Hewitt, “but then when you look at the original Thunderbird 2, having seen the new one, it looks like a Model ‘T’ Ford [by comparison]. The new designs make the old ones look old-fashioned.” Once the designs had been scanned into a computer, Peter Chiang, visual effects supervisor for Hewitt’s The Borrowers, produced a short CGI sequence of each of the Thunderbird aircraft flying and Thunderbird 4 plunging into the water. “They looked terrific,” enthuses Hewitt.
Costume designs were more radical, with each of the Tracy brothers being given flight-suits, spacesuits and uniforms more in keeping with the times. But in all the sketches featuring International Rescue personnel, the faces of the characters betrayed no hint about the casting of the film. Nevertheless, rumours were rife in the UK, most notably in the British tabloids, which claimed at various times that such real-life sibling actors as the Baldwins (Alec, Stephen, William and Daniel) and McGanns (Paul, Mark, Stephen and Joe) would portray the Tracy brothers (or the majority of them at least). Dismissing talk of the Baldwin brothers as “absolute rubbish,” Thunderbirds co-creator Sylvia Anderson told SFX, “If you look at the Tracy brothers, they don’t look alike, do they? And we have some lovely young actors now who could really do a good job… I would do a huge casting session,” she added. “I’d do a campaign to find people who would be absolutely right.” Gerry Anderson also felt that unknown actors were the answer. “It’s a very difficult picture to cast,” he noted, “because how many leads are there? There’s Lady Penelope, Parker, Jeff Tracy, the five brothers, [and] Brains. Normally you’d spend $20 million on Tom Cruise and that’s your lot. I think if the film’s ever made,” he added, “frankly I would go for, in the main, unknowns. In that way, you could get five Tracy brothers who you could believe were brothers.” The producers, however, were not ready to gamble tens of millions of dollars on unknowns. “We did some preliminary searches for the Tracy brothers,” Kirkpatrick reveals. “I wrote the part of Gordon for Steve Zahn, who was incredible in That Thing You Do! and Out of Sight. And when they were shooting Saving Private Ryan, Pete went and met with Matt Damon, who had just done Good Will Hunting, which hadn’t come out yet. They talked to him about playing Alan, and he was interested, but the studio said, ‘No, we want Leonardo DiCaprio.’ And of course, within a year, Good Will Hunting came out, and they approached Matt Damon again, and he was booked.”
Although actresses as diverse as Joanna Lumley and Liz Hurley were reportedly shortlisted to play Lady Penelope, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson shared the belief that British actress Kristin Scott Thomas (Four Weddings and a Funeral) might be the best choice. “She’s fun, but she’s classy,” noted Sylvia. “She could make the thing work.” Indeed, in January 1998, Variety went as far as to report that Thomas was “inching toward committing to star as Lady Penelope in Working Title Films’ Thunderbirds, a feature version of the cult British comic book and TV series.” “Well, that was true,” Hewitt admits. “She was going to be Lady Penelope, and Pete Postlethwaite was going to be Parker. And Tim [Bevan] knows Rowan Atkinson from the various movies they’ve done together, and he was talking to Rowan about being Brains…” Although the film did not officially enter pre-producton, he adds, “we did meet people who were interested in being in the movie, and if we’d got that cast together it would have been great.”
One of the more outlandish suggestions made by the producers was that, in order to create a more socially realistic Thunderbirds, one of the Tracy brothers should be black. (“That would be rather difficult to explain,” Sylvia Anderson commented dryly.) Nevertheless, says Hewitt, “That’s true as well — it definitely came up, as these things do, I suppose.” Kirkpatrick says that this was in response to the success of Men in Black, and the producers’ desire to put Will Smith in the cast. Despite such left-field suggestions, however, Sylvia Anderson felt that Bevan and Hewitt were well suited to bringing the Thunderbirds to the big screen. “I met the two of them when they were at the studio,” she recalled, “and… I thought, ‘Yes, these are the right people.’ At that time they were starting to do the script and they’d started to build [models]. I went over to California and I saw some of the shots they’d done, and part of the script. When the script was done they were going to ask me to take a look at it.”
Still, PolyGram refused to commit to the project. “We had come up with a script and done all the designs, and we were in the early stages of pre-production,” says Hewitt, “and then PolyGram would read the script and we’d end up having a conversation about whether Thunderbirds: The Movie should be made at all, because the show was totally unknown in America. And my thinking was, ‘Didn’t we have this conversation two years ago?’ So they would have to take a punt on Thunderbirds as a new idea, which I think is a good idea, but to an American, you can see the concerns. And you don’t spend $70 to $90 million on a movie unless you’re pretty certain it’s going to work.”
It was these doubts which led to Kirkpatrick’s departure from the project. “The way I left Thunderbirds was not a pleasant experience,” he says, “because I basically had to tell myself I was fired. I was in a meeting with Pete, Tim Bevan, and [producers] David Barron and Debra Hayward, where nobody would look me in the eye and tell me I was off the project. We were all sitting there and I walked in, and it was very awkward because clearly the people from Working Title didn’t know I was going to be there, and the meeting was to say, ‘We think we should get another writer.’” Hewitt and Kirkpatrick had just spent an intensive week polishing the fourth draft so that it could be sent out to actors. But during that week, PolyGram head of production Michael Kuhn read the script and declared that it was still missing the ‘big idea’. “I thought this was a ridiculous waste of money,” Kirkpatrick says, “because we spent the last two drafts polishing this idea, so if it was missing the big idea, that’s something you solve in an outline. So Pete was saying, ‘I think we should send it to this actor or that actor,’ and there were lots of cagey looks back and forth, and ‘Uh, well, we don’t think so, Pete.’ And he was like, ‘Why not? I think it’s really good.’ And they said, ‘We need to talk.’ And I knew instantly. So I had to say, ‘Pete, I’m off the picture. That’s what they can’t quite seem to say. So I’m going to leave the room now, because they want to talk about writers, not actors.’ And later, Pete and David Barron called and said, ‘I would like to apologise on behalf of my country.’ There were no hard feelings though,” Kirkpatrick says gallantly. “I was the first writer on it, and on a movie like this, there was no way I was going to be the only writer.”
Hewitt’s own days on the project were numbered. “Towards the end,” he says, “I was beginning to think that the outer space stuff was the wrong way to go, and had been done by then in Independence Day and Armageddon. I felt we should be trying to do a story more about the organisation — that there was enough there, without having to invent a bad guy and his big machine that’s going to destroy the Earth.” Hewitt felt that the financiers wanted a Jerry Bruckheimer-style blockbuster, whereas his own down-to-earth style was more akin to Gerry Anderson’s. It also didn’t help that Hewitt’s adaptation of The Borrowers, then Working Title’s most expensive film, opened poorly at the US box office. Says Kirkpatrick, “Working Title were very reverential to Pete because he was in the middle of making The Borrowers, which they were very hot on. They had huge expectations for that film. And I can tell you, the weekend after The Borrowers opened and under-performed, the temperature in the room got icy cold. And I think that’s why they said, ‘Wait a minute, what are we doing here? We’re about to do this again on something which is a really big risk.’” As Tim Bevan told Screen International, “You have to find something that you are incredibly confident in if you are taking a risk.”
Despite these misgivings, in February 1998, a London-based marketing firm, Picture Production Co, was engaged by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment to provide concepts for a series of specially-shot ‘teaser’ trailers showing International Rescue in action. Inspired in part by teaser ads for Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, one such concept depicted Thunderbird 4 rescuing a small boy who drifts out to sea in a fishing boat, another showed Thunderbird 3 retrieving a wrench lost by an astronaut working on the Hubble space telescope, a third had Thunderbird 2 rescuing a cat from a tree. Each of these concepts was designed to focus on the human effect of International Rescue: for instance, in the midst of an earthquake, a child’s lost toy is retrieved as part of a bigger rescue effort by Thunderbird 2. A second wave of proposed teasers focussed on news footage of each of the five Thunderbirds at work, while a third dealt with a pressure group’s insistence that the government come clean about its knowledge of the International Rescue organisation. According to the teaser scripts, 1999 was the prospective release date, with a variety of suggested taglines including ‘Stand By For Action’, ‘In 1999 Thunderbirds Are Go’, ‘Cleared for Launch in 1999’, ‘1999 Means No More 911’, ‘No Risk Too Great, No Rescue Too Small’ and ‘Protecting the World Since 1999’.
To say that such a release date was optimistic would be an understatement, however, since the would-be producers had, by now, given up on their director and lost faith in their script. Looking for a major reworking of the story, they turned to Steven E. de Souza, a prolific former TV writer whose film credits included 48 HRS., Commando and the first two Die Hard films, and who had written feature film adaptations of everything from cartoon series (The Flintstones) to video games (Street Fighter) and comic strips (Judge Dredd), with varying degrees of success. On 8 May 1998, de Souza met with Working Title’s UK-based head of development Debra Hayward and US-based president of production Liza Chasin at Working Title’s U.S. offices to tell them what he thought of the latest draft and pitch for the rewrite. “If you turn the sound off, fifty per cent of what you’ve got is great,” he told them. “The trouble is, when you turn the sound up, not only is it boring, but — off the record — I hate this family! They’re so perfect, I want to strangle them! They’re like the Waltons!” De Souza suggested that the Tracys could start out being “a nice healthy dysfunctional family, with sibling rivalry and some deep dark secrets,” but by the end of the movie they would have worked out their problems and become the Thunderbirds.
Another problem de Souza saw was that Kirkpatrick and Hewitt had tried to fit too much into the script, to the point that audiences “needed a program to understand what is going on!” Eleven good guys, he suggested, was too many. “There’s a reason why we have the seven wonders of the world, seven samurai and seven dwarfs,” he said. “Seven is the number you can hold onto all at once.” Rather than reducing the cast, which would necessitate the loss of one or more Thunderbirds regulars, de Souza would introduce them more slowly, giving the Thunderbirds a greater sense of mystique. “The media says, ‘Who are the Thunderbirds, with their submarine and their ship in orbit, their rescue missions and their secret island somewhere?” De Souza likened this approach to Tim Burton’s Batman, in which rumours began about a mysterious vigilante taking out criminals. “Finally, some guy who gets beaten up says, ‘It was a bat, a giant bat!’ And this reporter says, ‘Batman!’ So I’m thinking, at the beginning of this movie, there has been these amazing rescues that are inexplicable, like saving someone trapped on Mount Everest. So people say, ‘Who are these daredevils?’ Some people say they are UFOs: ‘I was rescued by an alien!’ There is this incredible mystery and everyone is fascinated, not just the media but also the authorities.” De Souza imagined a character like the head of NATO “or whatever you would like to call it in the near future,” who is concerned about the security implications of this unofficial organization. “‘How did those people get into my airspace undetected? Next time they could have weapons.’ So the authorities are after the Thunderbirds, just like the legitimate authorities are after Batman. Maybe this just sort of adds to the tension.”
De Souza liked the abduction of the scientists at the beginning of the existing script, but felt that a more audacious, ‘left of field’ opening was in order. His proposal was to set the film in the year 2012, and open with an image of a futuristic ocean liner, the Titanic II, steaming across the north Atlantic one hundred years to the day after the sinking of the Titanic. On board is a symposium of scientists, who are in the middle of a cocktail party when an iceberg appears dead ahead. Unwilling for history to repeat itself, the captain tries evasive maneuvers — but the iceberg not only follows them, it swallows the whole ship whole! “So now we cut to the Thunderbirds, and they may be coming from a rescue in the main titles, and they adjust on that and they hear, ‘There’s a ship in trouble! The Titanic II hit an iceberg!’ ‘Yeah right!’ ‘I’m serious, it’s on the screen!’ And they get there and the ship is gone, and so is the iceberg, but they get a survivor, a Native American, and he sees the Thunderbird logo and he knows that the thunderbird is a magical, mystical bird which means good luck, similar to the bluebird of happiness, but it kicks ass essentially. So then you can say, ‘Some have called them angels, devils, aliens, figments of the imagination, but for the first time they have a name… Thunderbirds!’ And back on Tracy Island, it’s, ‘Thunderbirds!? Dad, I told you we should have picked our own name! Now we’re stuck with this one!’”
De Souza sought to establish the family at the start of the film as a father and four very different sons: one a practical joker who fancies himself something of a stud; a nervous, paranoid type; a mediator; and a fourth following in his father’s footsteps as an astronaut in training. “He knows that his father and the brothers have this Thunderbirds thing, but he won’t tell anyone. He’s off at astronaut training [preparing] for a very important mission, which is to build a colony on the moon. There’s a recent discovery of water on the moon, so it’s very important. The fifth son, Alan, broke with the family a couple of years ago and, in fact, when we meet him, he’s essentially a mercenary pilot, and involved in very shady dealings.” Also flirting with ‘the dark side’ are Lady Penelope and Parker, who de Souza envisaged as criminals, “but criminals you like, because by the end of the movie, Lady Penelope is going to melt — and I don’t know whether it’s into the father’s arms or Alan’s arms — and finally become a good guy.” Penelope and Parker would be working for Thaddeus Stone, through various intermediaries, having no idea that he is (a) a deranged master criminal, or (b) based on the moon.
The machinations of de Souza’s plot begin at a party to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dramatic rescue of a doomed moon mission, in which Jeff Tracy was considered a hero. “The other survivors of the crew are there, and Jeff seems to be uncomfortable with the attention, maybe because he’s so modest. [But] the truth is there’s a dark, dark secret here that’s going to pay off later. As the dignitaries gather for this party on Tracy Island, the boys arrive, each in their own plane, and show off a little bit. To their surprise, Alan shows up, and we have one guy who’s glad to see him. Another guy says, ‘You’re going to ruin the party.’ We just get an idea of the friction, but at least he shows up, and that brings dad out of his funk. Then there’s an attack on this party, and we see the entire Tracy family be heroic and save people.” Although the motive for the attack is unclear at first, it soon transpires that it is linked to what really happened during the ill-fated moon mission twenty-five years earlier. It was 1988, at the height of the Cold War, and — unbeknownst to Jeff Tracy and his crew — the mission objective was to plant a weapon on the moon, pointed at the Soviet Union. Just as the equipment is being set up, however, a meteor storm rages, raining fiery death down on the newly-established moon base. Jeff manages to oversee the rescue of all of his crew but one: Thaddeus Stone, who is presumed dead. And yet… Patching himself together, fuelled by revenge, Stone spends the next quarter century stockpiling scientists, oxygen, and other supplies, building his fortune on Earth, even as he expands his base on the moon and plans his vengeance.
De Souza did not care for Stone’s master plan, to steal all of the air from Earth, because it had been done in, of all things, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. His alternative suggestion was to have Stone as a kind of deranged pacifist, à la Captain Nemo, who threatens to use his moon-based weapon to destroy the world’s glaciers, raising the sea level by five feet and putting several major cities under water. As the story unfolds, numerous plot twists occur: the Thunderbirds are blamed for Stone’s nefarious activities, Penelope and Parker redeem themselves, Tin-Tin turns out to be a government agent, Alan discovers that his family are the Thunderbirds and proves himself as loyal as any of his siblings… There are more surprises in store in the final showdown between Jeff Tracy and Stone, the man he is supposed to have left behind on the moon. “At the end of the movie, [when] the clock is ticking on the moon, on Earth, Stone says to [Jeff Tracy], ‘You left me. You left me alone on a dead world and all you knew was that I had a space suit with two hours of oxygen in it. How long did you try and rescue me?’ And Tracy says, ‘Two hours.’ And when he says that, for a split second I want to see the Stone of twenty-five years ago, the dedicated scientist, as for a second he realises it might be true, but he can’t accept it because his whole worldview is gone. He says, ‘No, you’re a liar.’ He can’t accept that, and finally it’s a fight to the death.” In the end, de Souza suggested, Stone is defeated, and the family resolve their differences as Alan is reconciled with his father and says, “All right, give me that Thunderbird patch.”
According to de Souza, Working Title was immediately enthusiastic about his pitch. “They said, ‘That’s it, you nailed it,’” he recalls. “There followed two days of negotiations with my agent — and then a call out of the blue. ‘Uh, we just got bought by Universal and we can’t make any deals right now.’” It was true: in mid-1998, Universal Studios swallowed up PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, leaving Working Title temporarily homeless, and the future of Thunderbirds uncertain. “That,” says de Souza, no stranger to development hell, “was the biggest ‘one that got away’ in my career.”
When, in March 1999, Universal signed a new agreement with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner’s Working Title partnership, under which the pair were given the power to greenlight up to five pictures budgeted at under $25 million each, Variety noted that, “More expensive projects, such as the upcoming Thunderbirds, will have to be specifically approved by Universal.” By the time the twenty-first century arrived, however, Thunderbirds did not seem to figure in Working Title’s future plans. “We don’t make big action movies,” Fellner told Empire in early 2000, while Bevan explained the company’s strategy: “We’ve learned along the way that if we keep the negative costs down, and have some success, then they are going to let us make more oddball projects… We’re doing four, five movies at the moment, and the combined negative cost is less than the average cost of a Hollywood movie, so we’ve got five shots to put out there.” Invited to comment for the first edition of this book about Thunderbirds, Bevan was more succinct: “At the present time,” he wrote in April 2001, “there is nothing to report on that project.”
In fact, Working Title had commissioned an entirely new script from someone much closer to home: William Osborne, screenwriter husband of Working Title’s head of production Debra Hayward, one of the Thunderbirds movie’s executive producers. Osborne, whose credits included the hit Ivan Reitman comedy Twins and such less-successful films as Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, The Real McCoy and Ghost in the Machine, took a unique approach to the story. Since Thunderbirds was aimed at kids, what if the stars were teenagers, or even pre-teens, a formula which had recently worked for Spy Kids? What if the older Tracy brothers and their father were in jeopardy, and only the youngest sibling, thirteen-year-old Alan, could rescue them? Perhaps with a little help from Tin-Tin and from Brains’ teenage son? What if The Hood’s plan was not to steal the air from Earth, but a more pedestrian plot — breaking into a putative ‘Bank of London’ — which would allow all of the various Thunderbird craft, including The Mole and the sub-aquatic Thunderbird 4, to be utilized to good effect?
Osborne’s page-one rewrite was subsequently reworked by Michael McCullers, a former Saturday Night Live writer who co-scripted the two Austin Powers sequels with Mike Myers, while long-time Working Title collaborator Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually) contributed dialogue to some of the scenes featuring the British characters, Lady Penelope and Parker. It was this version which was finally greenlit by Working Title Films, with the blessing of its new financing partner and distributor, Universal, in mid-2002. The film entered production in early 2003, with director Jonathan Frakes pulling the strings. Frakes, although American, seemed qualified for the position: a former member of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s crew, he followed his occasional directing duties on that series with two Star Trek feature films, First Contact (1996) and Insurrection (1998), and, more recently, the family-oriented sci-fi fantasy Clockstoppers (2002). “I knew nothing about Thunderbirds until my wonderful agent sent me the DVDs of the original show, which I watched with my kids who were eight and five at the time,” Frakes told the website Phase 9. “My daughter went crazy for Lady Penelope and my son loved the ships they were flying… And after 9/11 it seemed like a very appropriate theme for a film about saving lives, and the original had such charm. And then I got to England and realised it’s a very fond memory for everyone and brought a smile to everyone’s face. You can’t really buy that kind of nostalgia.” Taking his cue from the script’s new focus on the youngest member of the Tracy family, Frakes opted to shoot Thunderbirds in what he described as a “playful, kid-friendly” style, aiming the film squarely at the family audience, while lending it credibility by casting such respected actors as Bill Paxton (as Jeff Tracy) and Sir Ben Kingsley (as The Hood).
Previewed to critics in May 2004, Thunderbirds received almost unanimously dismal reviews. “What a travesty. What an insult. What a very, very bad idea,” wrote The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, describing the film as “an unfunny and unexciting live-action feature that doesn’t know whether to reinvent the original lovingly, like Mission: Impossible, or send the whole thing up as a naff bit of Brit-kitsch. So it tries to do both — and rips off Spy Kids into the bargain… Thunderbirds are not go,” he added. “Thunderbirds are very much stop. Not FAB at all.” The BBC’s Nev Pierce agreed, pointing to “dreary dialogue, a tedious story, and acting often as wooden as the original’s puppets… Roughly, it’s Spy Kids minus fun.” US critics, less likely to be carrying baggage about a much-loved British TV series of the 1960s, were equally unkind. “Thunderbirds is to Spy Kids as Austin Powers is to James Bond,” suggested Roger Ebert. “It recycles the formula in a campy 1960s send-up that is supposed to be funny. But how many members of the pre-teen audience for this PG movie are knowledgeable about the 1960s Formica-and-polyester look? How many care?” Noting that the main titles carried no credit acknowledging the characters created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Variety described the film as a “somewhat schizophrenic summer kidpic [that] never fully decides between its parallel missions as a knowingly campy live-action update… and a fantasy action-adventure for the uninitiated.”
Whether deterred by withering reviews, poor word-of-mouth, or simple indifference, audiences did not materialize for Thunderbirds when it was released in July 2004. The film grossed a disastrous $6.7 million in the US, and fared little better in its native Britain or the rest of the world, where its total box office take was $22.6 million — barely one third of its $60 million budget. “Of course it was a big disappointment, as a lot of people had spent a lot of time on it,” Working Title’s Tim Bevan told trade journal Screen International two months later, before attempting to explain the film’s spectacular belly-flop. “It just failed to find its core audience. The kids that saw it liked it, but the parents that would have to take them didn’t like it.” Bevan could not pinpoint any one area which he believed led to the film’s failure. “We made little mistakes in all areas,” he said. “At every state there was 5% missing. Maybe the lead kid should have been older, maybe this, or maybe that. It is very difficult to say.” Perhaps, he argued, the film fell between two stools, being a property known in the UK, Japan and Australia but unknown in the rest of the world. The budget would also be considered lean for a studio-level, effects-driven film. “Big visual effects films need to spend a huge amount of money,” he suggested. “We were a ‘tweenie’.” Bevan said that Working Title would learn from the mistakes made on Thunderbirds, however. “[One shouldn’t] fall into the trap, which we learned a long time ago, of going mid-Atlantic. Don’t try to satisfy the British by being a little bit British and the Americans by being a little bit American. To do well you have to be honest to your own nationality. “[Another] thing,” he added, “is that we are going to be more cautious in terms of there being a tighter set of quality criteria.” Of course. It doesn’t take Brains to figure that out.