How an 'Indiana Jones' documentary accidentally led to cult caveman comedy 'Encino Man'

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Encino Man, the cult classic caveman comedy about two friends who discover a frozen prehistoric dude in their California backyard, turns 30 this week, and it remains a fascinating time capsule of early 1990s pop culture. The film features Pauly Shore at arguably the height of his MTV driven fame, Sean Astin in a major post-Goonies role on the path to Rudy, and of course, the breakout performance of Brendan Fraser, who would go on to build a massive 1990s resume with a series of films including George of the Jungle and The Mummy.

And it all started, in its own strange way, with Steven Spielberg.

To be clear, Spielberg had nothing to do with the writing, directing, or producing of Encino Man, but he was instrumental in launching the Hollywood careers of Les Mayfield and George Zaloom, who came up with the concept and ended up serving as director and producer-co-writer, respectively, on the finished film. In a new oral history of the comedy over at Inverse, Mayfield and Zaloom recalled that they met as incoming college students during a placement test on their way to the University of Southern California film school, where they eventually became roommates. A few years later, they got a call from a friend to come down to a set and shoot behind-the-scenes footage from an upcoming film that would, it turned out, become a classic in its own right.

"One of our friends had graduated a year before and called us one afternoon. He’d gotten a job as a PA for Steven Spielberg," Zaloom recalled. "He said, 'We’re working this movie. Can you get access to a camera? We need somebody to shoot some behind-the-scenes stuff.' We were like, 'I’ll be out there in 10 minutes.' We bribed some guy in the equipment room for a camera. We drove out to Simi Valley. We were like, 'Holy shit, they’re making the movie Poltergeist!' They gave us some film. We shot film. At the end of the day, we gave them the film back. I remember Steven was like, 'Hey, guys. Want to come back tomorrow?'"

Mayfield and Zaloom did come back tomorrow, and every day after that for virtually the next decade. They formed a production company and became go-to behind-the-scenes documentarians for Spielberg and other filmmakers, shooting making-of footage around Hollywood as what Zaloom called "this ragtag group of idiots who had all these trailers behind Steven Spielberg’s offices." Eventually, though, the duo wanted to make feature films of their own, and started casting around for ideas they could pitch to studios.

The seed of what became Encino Man arrived, according to Zaloom, at the intersection of the career the duo had and the career they wanted.

"We happened to be working on a TV special on the making of Indiana Jones [and the Last Crusade]," he said. "It can’t just be an overt promotional thing for the movie. It’s got to be something interesting. We were trying to find modern-day adventures. I remember we needed one more person. One of our associate producers said, 'I found this guy. He’s a college professor out in Encino. He’s doing a dig out there.' I was like, 'Let’s go shoot it.' Somebody joked, 'What is he going to find — Encino Man?' I just remember: 'Encino Man!' I wrote it on a tiny yellow Post-it. I had that on my wall. I stared at it for weeks. I kept saying to myself, 'What if they did find Encino Man?'"

While Mayfield attributed the idea more to the famous 1991 discovery of Otzi the Iceman in Europe, eventually the title and concept of Encino Man became too good to ignore.

"I think it just kept rattling around and developed a bit, and I said, 'Well, that sounds really interesting. It could be a lot of movies. But it could be a good comedy,'" Mayfield recalled.

Eventually, the duo was able to sell the concept to Disney, which distributed Encino Man under its live-action banner, Buena Vista Pictures. After that, it was a matter of partnering with screenwriter Shawn Schepps to flesh out the script, casting the right actors, and doing their best to capture the spirit of the original idea. What we got was one of the wildest, and most memorable, mainstream comedies of the 1990s, and it all started with shooting an archaeological dig in Encino.

Looking for more throwback history-tinged comedy? Check out the 2009 remake of Land of the Lost on Peacock, starring Will Ferrell, streaming now. 

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