A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Will’s Woeful ‘Wild Wild West'

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Hollywood Time Capsule is a weekly series highlighting classic pieces of long-form film journalism of years past, when stars and directors could be surprisingly candid.

TITLE: ”Even Cowboys Get the Blues,” Entertainment Weekly, July 9, 1999

AUTHOR: Benjamin Svetkey

SUBJECT: Wild Wild West, the 1999 big-budget sci-fi western starring Will Smith, based on the 1960s television show, upon which Warner Bros. was banking its summer-movie hopes. "You knew the movie was going to be crappy, but you had to find a way to tell an interesting story that wasn’t just a puffy production," Svetkey says today. So he and his editors decided that he would study the horrendous buzz that was "floating on the ether" and pin down where it was coming from and why. (In retrospect, it’s not surprising that a big part of the answer was the phenomenon of the Internet — it had, he wrote, "become Buzz Central over the past few years, with dozens of Web pages dishing industry dirt.” To Svetkey, “this seemed like a better story to write than Will Smith forking into his pasta primavera at some restaurant.” 

WHAT MAKES IT SUCH A PAGE-TURNER:  If you’re the head of a major motion-picture studio, you probably don’t want the star of your megabudget tentpole project to say, “Maybe I should take a break from July 4 movies for a while.” (He had been decreed the official star of the holiday weekend after 1997's Men in Black and 1996's Independence Day, both mega-hits.) And you probably don’t want your director proudly giving the magazine reporter a beach-house tour that starts with "the first privately owned urinal on the Eastern Seaboard" and talking about his Gulfstream II or his erection history. You definitely don’t want both of them blaming bad buzz on the way you baited an audience with a Matrix screening and switched in theirs instead. But that’s exactly how Will Smith and Barry Sonnenfeld decided to play the game, and Svetkey didn’t flinch from using their words to maximum effect. 

Neither producer Jon Peters nor the studio — which, like EW, was owned by Time Warner — agreed to talk to Svetkey about the film, but he didn’t need their input. He got Salma Hayek to hint that she’d like the story spun to suggest she was underused, and caught Robert Conrad, the star of the original Wild Wild West TV show, in a grumpy mood, sounding like he’s got a battery perched on his shoulder.”

When the story was published, Sonnenfeld exploded, and Warner Bros. came after Svetkey (“Usually the director or actor gets furious, and then the studio gets furious in solidarity or something,” Svetkey says). There was yelling that he’d duped them, and although Svetkey maintained that he’d been upfront about the angle of the story — after all, the majority of his questions had been specifically about the buzz — he was banned from Warner Bros. sets for a full year (the film itself, meanwhile, went on to gross a mere $222 worldwide, which meant a big loss for the studio; they had spent a rumored $200 million on the movie's production, but that didn't include what was likely a huge marketing budget). As for Smith, who that very month had been touted as the world’s biggest movie star, he actually did back off from July 4 weekend movies for a little while — until the box-office losses of The Legend of Bagger Vance and Ali sent him crawling back to Sonnenfeld for 2002’s Men in Black II. He would never again be described as “the most easygoing actor ever to ask for $20 million a picture.”

And though few people remember the big-screen Wild Wild West now, the EW piece still resonates. Earlier this week, as the magazine left the home of corporate parent Time Warner, the Awl ran a long story about the sometimes-antagonistic relationship between EW and Warner Bros., singling out Svetkey’s cover story as one that “underlined the lengths to which EW editorial was willing to go to protect its critical distance.” You can read it here.

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures