At the dawn of the ’90s, the words “virtual reality” meant nothing to almost everyone.
A mysterious technology too expensive for the public to use or even care about, VR was the dominion of Silicon Valley futurists and computer obsessives. But Brett Leonard believed it had the power to change the world.
“The idea came to me when I actually put on a headset,” Leonard tells Inverse. “I just instantly said, ‘Oh my God, I wanna make a movie about this.’”
That movie is The Lawnmower Man, a sci-fi thriller released on March 6, 1992. Loosely (and we use that term generously) based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name, The Lawnmower Man is a “cautionary tale” about the power and peril of virtual reality. The film stars Jeff Fahey as a landscaper with an apparent intellectual disability and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan as a scientist who uses VR to turn Fahey’s character into a genius — and then a vengeful god.
Misuse this technology, the film warns, and the consequences will be terrible. The march of time hasn’t exactly proven Leonard wrong.
“After seeing what Facebook wants to do, and what some of the corporate forces want to do with the metaverse, I am concerned,” he says. “It changes brain chemistry.”
Today, The Lawnmower Man is best known as a garish relic of early computer animation rather than as a cogent warning on the dangers of VR (not to mention the crass depiction of a character whose mind appears to work differently to others around him). But as VR creeps into our lives in ever more bizarre ways, Leonard’s foresight seems increasingly relevant.
Three decades after he made the film, Brett Leonard, production designer Alex McDowell, and five others tell Inverse how The Lawnmower Man made its mark as one of the most prescient films of the early 1990s.
Getting things off the ground
Brett Leonard (director and writer): Santa Cruz had a lot of people running around it, like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and a guy named Jaron Lanier, who had actually coined the term virtual reality.” He introduced me to the technology very early, at this thing called the Cyberthon event: everyone stays up for 24 hours and checks out all the new technology. The idea came to me when I actually put on a headset that Jaron Lanier put on my head, which I believe was in ’89. I just instantly said, “Oh my God, I wanna make a movie about this.”
Alex McDowell (production designer): What was unusual about Lawnmower Man was that Brett was coming out of the research space rather than the film space. He was in the Jaron Lanier front edge of stuff that wasn’t being discussed outside of NASA and military space.
Brett Leonard: Two producers — Bob Pringle and Steve Lane — contacted me because they had seen my first feature film, and they sent me this short story by Stephen King called “The Lawnmower Man.” They owned the rights to that short story, from the Night Shift anthology. They said, “Well, we have an idea,” and they sent a treatment they had come up with, which was about a guy grinding women up in a lawnmower chipper to make fertilizer. And I’m like, “Nah, I don’t wanna make a movie about women being chopped up for fertilizer, but there’s this thing called virtual reality that I saw and I really think I can somehow bring that idea into this movie.”
Now, looking at it now, it’s insane that that worked; the Stephen King short story has nothing to do with virtual reality. It was a seven-page short story about a supernatural being, from the land of the god Pan, who was the lawnmower man, who exacted supernatural revenge on this abusive father and husband. The actual short story is in the movie — even the dialogue with the police — but everything else was created from whole cloth. I should say, all of those decisions were made with Gimel Everett, who was my partner and wife and was my co-writer and producer. When the producers got the script they were somewhat confused because they didn’t understand what virtual reality was.
So Gimel and I made a 20-minute educational video and showed real virtual reality technology to educate them on how that would work in the film.
Jimi Simmons (visual effects artists): Brett was so cool. He knew what he wanted. It seems dated now but nobody was even talking about that kind of stuff at the time. He’s an incredible man.
Bond, (not yet) James Bond
Brett Leonard: Kathy and Amanda [casting directors] brought in numerous people to play the Pierce Brosnan role. They brought in Brad Dourif, who I loved from Cuckoo’s Nest. I was looking for a leading man. So Kathy and Amanda said, “Look, there’s a guy — he just came off a television series; he actually was cast as Bond but then couldn’t do it because the television series renewed for half a season.” In those days television stars were not thought of as movie stars. I just instantly saw that Pierce was a movie star — his charm, his humor. He’s very warm. He’s a very beautiful man.
Mark Bringelson (actor, Sebastian Timms in Lawnmower Man): The thing I really remember about the audition is, in the very middle of one of the scenes there was a great big crash in the hallway outside, and I used it; I reacted to it and I said something that made them laugh. I think I had heard that Pierce was going to do it. Pierce had not been James Bond yet. His name had been bandied about to take over the role.
“Pierce, it’s hard to make you look bad, dude.”
Brett Leonard: One of the reasons he got Bond, by the way, was because Lawnmower Man was a hit film. When he got it he called me up and he said, “It’s Bond… James Bond.”
Mark Bringelson: I remember that during the shoot, I think it was People Magazine, he [Brosnan] was on the list of one of the sexiest men in the world. And one day I made fun of him a lot about that. He got a kick out of that.
Brett Leonard: Pierce was at that point especially known as a bit of a pretty boy. So he constantly wanted me to film him with sweat and put him with underlit fluorescents. I said, “Pierce, it’s hard to make you look bad, dude.”
Mary Jane Fort (costume designer): [Brosnan’s character] is a scientist. This is not a glamorous person. He doesn’t think about his clothes. A leather jacket was something he was comfortable in. It looks good, yet it’s not like an over-stated piece.
Nervous first days
Brett Leonard: Rolling up to the set, there were ten trucks there; the first scene was with Dr. Angelo. I drove up; I saw those trucks; I instantly put my head out the window and threw up my breakfast. Pierce was there and he was extremely nervous.
Mark Bringelson: I remember the first day, sitting on the set, and I had a book — it was Brett Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, which had recently come out. There were pieces in magazines and newspapers about what a horrible, nihilistic, and awful book it was. And Pierce came by and he introduced himself and we talked for a little bit. But he was really looking down at the book. And there was kind of a pause. And then he asked — it was a very cordial tone — “Why are you reading that sh*t?” And I was probably a little defensive about it. But I said the truth: “It’s really not sh*t. I know there’s a big controversy about it, but it’s a serious piece of writing.”
And then there was another pause, and he said something like, “People need to realize that kind of sh*t that goes on in that book, that’s not what counts. What counts is having life and nurturing life and holding onto it.”
I did not know until our shoot was over — and that would have been 30-some days after that — that Pierce’s wife at the time was dying of cancer. His remarks took on a whole new meaning for me.
The VFX Boys
Brett Leonard: We were using these very advanced tools, but with companies that were emerging because it was not a big-budget film. Finding Xaos and Angel Studios was critical.
Mark Malmberg (creative director, Xaos Inc): Brett came to Xaos and we were kind of a hot little company right then, and we were doing a lot of very artistic, organic work that was unique because we had written all of our own software from the ground up. It was all much more of a programming approach. We didn’t have mice on our computers. I used to always say, if we got a computer with a mouse, we’d cut its tail off
Jimi Simmons: Mark’s another one of those guys, I swear to you, if you shut the lights out, his brain glows in the dark.
Brett Leonard: We were trying to do 23 minutes of digital visual effects in a $5 million movie. That same year, Terminator 2 came out with seven minutes of digital effects and it was a $120 million film.
Mark Malmberg: It was more minutes of effects than had ever been approached in a film before, by a large factor. He knew he was getting more than his money’s worth.
Jimi Simmons: It definitely felt new. It was definitely exciting.
Mark Malmberg: In the late ‘80s, computer animation didn’t have a look. That era in general was kind of like the wild wild west of computer animation.
Brett Leonard: Virtual reality at that time didn’t look real, so we could make a stylized, psychedelic aesthetic around the virtual reality scenes.
Alex McDowell: In the research for VR itself, we were working with NASA and they had the only working examples of VR that we were able to see. At that point it was as primitive as you can imagine; the VR that I saw was basically flying vertically next to a palm tree with a blue sky and a blue sea and yellow sand all essentially as flat colors, but with a remarkable, unprecedented sensation of parallax.
Mark Malmberg: Angel Studios had five minutes or so of effects and we had five minutes or maybe more of CG, plus the monkey cams that we contracted for, which were the point-of-views of the monkeys when they got loose, with their helmets.
A pair of chimps
Brett Leonard: Roscoe the chimp… we got a chimp that was at the edge of how old they can be to use them in a film. At a certain point, chimps become very belligerent, and they can bench-press 1600lbs. They can rip your arm off.
Mary Jane Fort: We had two chimps, doubles in case one wasn’t interested in working on that particular day. They were fascinating.
Brett Leonard: They would try to dominate women. There were certain rules that women couldn’t be on the set during certain times of the month with the chimp on set. All of that chimp stuff was incredibly hard to film.
“At a certain point, chimps become very belligerent, and they can bench-press 1600lbs.”
Mary Jane Fort: We were given the chimp’s measurements and then we made a prototype for him to try on. When we actually fit them, we went to their facility, which is north of Los Angeles. Brian [McMillan, the animal wrangler] didn’t want me getting close to the chimp. So I was instructing Brian, who’s this great big South African guy, “OK, pin that a little tighter…”
Brett Leonard: There were absolutely many points while making the chimp scenes where I regretted it.
Chris Farmer: I try not to get involved with animals.
Brett Leonard: I thought a gyrosphere looked amazing, cinematically. It references The Vitruvian Man.
Alex McDowell: I guess it was important to make a correlation between actor movement in real space and actor movement in virtual space — that’s why the gyrospheres are important narratively, although completely impractical because your subject would vomit constantly.
Brett Leonard: It wasn’t comfortable. They had to be screwed in, basically, and you’re being flipped around and there was some vomit that happened at some points.
Mary Jane Fort: What they wore had to play off the equipment that they used. It was called a data suit. The filaments and the wires on the data suit made sense for it to mirror the muscular system of the human body. I remember clearly they hated it. The breastplates were neoprene and then the grey body of the suit was spandex. I think the neoprene was not as flexible as spandex so I had to put different joints in for where your arms move or your arms lift or your knees bend or where your ankles are.
The special effects
Jimi Simmons: The director really sets the tone for everything. I remember we got off work one night, we were down in the basement, walking out through the parking garage, and he broke into some baritone aria from, I dunno, Les Miserables or something. And I was just like, “Yeah, I like this guy.”
Mark Malmberg: Most of our shots were executed in 3D. One example of a 3D effect was where the security guard [Timms] turns into these particle spheres and he swirls away.
Mark Bringelson: I was only involved in one part of the special effects when I particle-ized toward the end.
Mark Malberg: I asked Michael Tolson if he could write some software that would give us a piece of an image in kind of a bubble that we could grab with the particle system. When I gave that to one of the artists, whose name was Ken Pearce, he chose to come up with his own tool using the procedural 3D software that we’d developed.
Mark Bringelson: They put up a green screen on the sound stage. I didn’t really know what to do, and what Brett wanted me to do. If I recall, he just said, “Go insane and go crazy.” And then he just kinda shrugged. And so I just kinda went crazy in front of the camera.
Jimi Simmons: We were probably 8-10 blocks from Xaos. At the time, we were the only facility in San Francisco and I believe only one of two facilities on the West Coast that had digital compositing systems.
Mark Malmberg: Total storage capacity on our whole system got to 1GB, and that was huge.
“They put up a green screen on the sound stage. I didn’t really know what to do.”
Brett Leonard: This film was not digitally edited; it was edited in a traditional editing situation with film. It was very mechanical. It was really an amalgam at that time.
Jimi Simmons: At the end, my output was usually on digital videotape. Imagine a giant VHS machine. Then they would send down to a place in Los Angeles that would transfer that back to film. We used to call it sneaker networks: you’d put your sneakers on and run over to the guy’s house and grab the tape. There was the ability to send those files [by email] but it was days.
The world reacts
Brett Leonard: One Sunday afternoon I get up and the phone rings. “Hey Brett; Steve King here! Stephen King! Stephen King! The author of Lawnmower Man!” Sweat starts pouring down my face. “Hi, Mr. King. How are you?” “Listen, I’m about to go watch your movie. I’m gonna call you right after and let you know what I think.” “…OK.” Wow. So that was the worst two hours of my life.
“Brett. Very cool movie. My kids actually really liked it. Very clever. I think it’s incredible. Of course, it has very little to do with my short story and they’re saying it’s from the mind of Stephen King so I’m probably gonna sue these bastards. But I want you to know, I’m not gonna sue you and I think you did a great job and I’ll be positive about the movie,” which he was.
(Stephen King’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
“They’re saying it’s from the mind of Stephen King so I’m probably gonna sue these bastards.”
Alex McDowell: Lawnmower Man was the first public-facing description or discussion about VR ever, I think. I assumed VR to be part of our toolkit of narrative media from that point forward.
Brett Leonard: I had to force New Line Cinema to put the term “virtual reality” into the trailer.
Mark Bringelson: Pierce was very moody at the wrap party. I went over to him and profusely thanked him and said to him that I feel really lucky that he was involved with most of my scenes. True to his character, he said that he felt the same way about me.
Brett Leonard: It almost didn’t get a theatrical release. In film, especially if you’re a low-budget film, you get one screening. Hopefully, it’s the right audience, and out of what that audience says on their comment cards, your film could be screwed. They had it in Torrance, California. The Lawnmower Man is incredibly non-diverse, which is not something I’m proud of at all. It’s a white man’s cyber-thriller. That weakness was very much present in that first test screening because it was not a white man’s cyber audience at all. And it did not do good numbers at all.
Both Gimel and I after that screening were as close to suicide as I think I’ve ever become. I begged with the producers: look, open it in four markets in four cities; don’t spend a lot of P&A [promotion and advertising]. And they agreed to do that because they thought there was enough potential. And it went through the roof in those four markets.
Mark Malmberg: The film itself would not have gone far without computer animation. It did not register as one of the great films of the decade, but it was a milestone technically. It pointed the way to the extent to which computer animation would become important in filmmaking.
Jimi Simmons: One scene that stuck out in the theater was the wasps, that whole swarm of wasps that come out at the guard station and one of them flies right up in your face. I remember in the theater at the time everybody did a little lean back and took a big gasp.
Brett Leonard: I constantly get communications about how it relates to all the current questions around the metaverse, and how it affects the human being. After seeing what Facebook wants to do, and what some of the corporate forces want to do with the metaverse, I am concerned. It changes brain chemistry.
Alex McDowell: I think that there are many flaws in an early film like that. It’s a relatively crude movie as a result. The main core of it that remains interesting is how prescient it was and that the story it was telling was not only prescient but it was triggering a new way of thinking about media.
Brett Leonard: James Cameron loved The Lawnmower Man. He met me at Cannes the year The Lawnmower Man came out; he walked up, he said, “You beat me to virtual reality, you sonofabitch.”