Free Willy tells the story of Jesse (Jason James Richter), a 12-year-old street kid in and out of foster care who gets nabbed by police while vandalizing a theme park. He avoids juvenile detention by agreeing to clean up the mess as community service. While working at the park, he is drawn to Willy, an unhappy orca who has been separated from his family and refuses to be trained. Willy and Jesse are both mad at the world, and the two form a unique bond. When Jesse discovers that the aquarium owners are up to no good and Willy's life is in danger, he risks everything to set Willy free.
The idea for Free Willy began in 1984 when actor Keith Walker was filming Richard Donner's fantasy-adventure The Goonies (1985) in Astoria, Oregon. Inspired by the seaside setting, Walker wrote the first draft of Free Willy as his first screenplay.
Walker later sent his script to Richard Donner's assistant, Jennie Lew Tugend, who was also a producer. Though the first draft was a little rough and amateurish, Tugend liked the emotional impact of the story and felt that it had potential to be a hit. Tugend partnered with Richard Donner and his producer wife, Lauren Shuler-Donner, and the trio began developing the property. It would ultimately take seven years to bring their version of Free Willy to the big screen, but the payoff would be worth it.
"The original script," said Shuler-Donner in a 1993 interview, "was too sweet, too mushy, too formulaic. The little boy was mute and lived with nuns!" The producers hired another screenwriter, Corey Blechman (Dominick and Eugene ) to do a rewrite. Blechman toned down the schmaltz and turned the character of Jesse into a 12-year-old foster child with attitude and street smarts.
The producers gave the new draft of the screenplay to Lisa Henson, a Warner Bros. production executive at the time and daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson. Henson was enthusiastic about the project and became instrumental in getting the film made. "We said, 'Why should Disney have a lock on family films?'" Shuler-Donner explained in a 1993 interview. "A lot of the executives have families and want to be able to take their kids."
In 1991 a third and final writer, Tom Benedek, was brought in to give the main characters greater clarity and personality. However, even though Warner Bros. was impressed with the new script, the top brass had doubts that a story about a boy and his orca would translate into box office dollars. In order to convince them, the producers hired noted wildlife photographer Bob Talbot to shoot some footage of killer whales in the Pacific Ocean. "When I was approached to do the opening whale segment for Free Willy," said Talbot, "it was pretty nerve wracking. It was so important to me to do something that was special." Talbot felt strongly about animals, and he saw in Free Willy a chance to help raise awareness and educate people about the concerns of animals in captivity. The breathtaking orca footage gave Warner Bros. faith in the project, and they finally green-lit Free Willy with a budget of 20 million dollars.
Originally, Robin Armstrong was set to direct Free Willy. However, his demands for more script rewrites at the last minute were causing too many production delays. Eventually he was replaced by Australian director Simon Wincer, who had a reputation for being great with animals, actors and the outdoors. Wincer was thrilled at the opportunity. "It wasn't a little movie," he said, "it was a gigantic movie."
The lucky whale who got his big movie break to play Willy was an orca named Keiko. Born near Iceland in the late 1970s, Keiko was captured in 1979 and placed in an aquarium. Eventually, Keiko was sold to the Marineland theme park in Niagara Falls, Ontario where he was trained to perform. After he became ill, however, Keiko was sold to the Reino Aventura amusement park in Mexico City. It was at this park where producers discovered Keiko and cast him in Free Willy.
Willy's sidekick and best friend, Jesse, was discovered at a casting call in Los Angeles. 12-year-old Oregon-born Jason James Richter was chosen out of over 4,000 young actors to play Jesse. It was his first feature film role. Like the character of Jesse, Richter had a slight edge to him that made him perfect for the part. "He smiled crooked, he had an attitude," said Lauren Shuler-Donner. "He was 100% boy."
Also joining the cast were Lori Petty as spunky trainer Rae and Michael Madsen as Jesse's foster father Glen. Petty was coming off starring roles in the high profile films A League of Their Own (1992) and Point Break (1991) while Madsen was making his mark in films such as Thelma & Louise (1991) and Reservoir Dogs (1992). August Schellenberg as the wise park supervisor Randolph, Michael Ironside as evil park owner Dial, and Jayne Atkinson as Jesse's foster mom Annie rounded out the memorable cast.
Shooting locations for Free Willy included Mexico City, Portland and Astoria, Oregon, Los Angeles, and Cypress Island, Washington. The film used some of the same cutting edge computer special effects technology at the time that had made Jurassic Park (1993) look so sharp and realistic. Special effects supervisor Walter Conti and his team also built several smaller scale Willy models and one full scale exact rubber-coated model of Willy for close-ups.
When Free Willy was first screened for test audiences, the results were overwhelmingly positive. At the end of the film, "even the focus groups wanted to donate to the whale foundation," said Lauren Shuler-Donner. The film opened in July 1993 to consistently positive reviews, and soon became a runaway sleeper hit that won the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.
Though Michael Jackson's song "Will You Be There?" was originally written for his 1991 album Dangerous, its inclusion over the final credit sequence of Free Willy injected new life into the song and catapulted it into a top ten single featuring clips from the film, thanks to heavy rotation on music video channels.
The success of Free Willy eventually spawned two sequels (Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home , Free Willy 3: The Rescue ) also starring Keiko. Ironically, at the height of his popularity, there was a public outcry over the poor conditions of Keiko's permanent home at the Reino Aventura park in Mexico City. The Free Willy Keiko Foundation was formed in an effort to collect enough money to construct a new home for him at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in America. Keiko was airlifted to his new Oregon home in 1996 and was eventually set free in the waters of his native Iceland in 2002. Sadly, Keiko died in 2003 at the age of 27, and was mourned the world over by children and adults alike who had become steadfast fans of Free Willy.
Producer: Richard Donner, Penelope L. Foster, Jennie Lew Tugend, Arnon Milchan, Lauren Shuler Donner, Richard Solomon, Jim Van Wyck
Director: Simon Wincer
Screenplay: Keith Walker, Corey Blechman
Cinematography: Robbie Greenberg
Film Editing: O. Nicholas Brown
Art Direction: Diane Yates
Music: Basil Poledouris
Cast: Keiko (Willy), Jason James Richter (Jesse), Lori Petty (Rae Lindley), Jayne Atkinson (Annie Greenwood), August Schellenberg (Randolph Johnson), Michael Madsen (Glen Greenwood).
by Andrea Passafiume