The story of a Jamaican bobsled team competing at the 1988 Olympics, "Cool Runnings" is so much odder than fiction that no one would dare film it if it weren't true.
Former Columbia Pictures chief Dawn Steel wanted to do it during her brief reign at the studio in the late 1980s. After her move to Disney, there was another false start as the script was reworked, the director replaced and the budget trimmed.
Shooting finally got under way in February and now it's a movie with a very positive industry buzz. Disney is hoping it will be the fall sleeper the studio needs following a summer of dismal flops ("Father Hood," "My Boyfriend's Back").
"The script has been following me around for 3 1/2 years," said Leon, the single-name actor who plays the bobsled team's leader.
"I was signed more than a year before we actually started, when Brian Gibson was going to direct. But there were script problems. It wasn't funny enough, the key elements were lacking, and it just wasn't working. It was meant to happen when it happened."
"I got in at the tail end," said Rawle D. Lewis, who plays another team member and accompanied Leon on a promotional tour that stopped in Seattle. Unlike Leon, who co-starred with Sylvester Stallone in "Cliffhanger" and played the statue who comes to life in Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video, he's had little experience. He wasn't even allowed to audition at first.
"I was hired to read lines to auditioning actors for just one day," said Lewis. "That turned into three weeks. At first they told me they were looking for names, big stars, so I wouldn't be considered, but then they asked me to do a screen test."
He was hired in November and started training in January for the location filming in Calgary. The director is Jon Turtletaub, who made Disney's low-budget 1992 hit, "3 Ninjas," although the credits acknowledge the story contributions of director Michael Ritchie ("The Candidate," "Downhill Racer"), who worked on the project at Columbia.
The movie has drawn more than usual attention because it's the first major project Steel has finished since her exit from Columbia. It's coming out at the same time as her book about working in Hollywood, "They Can Kill You, But They Can't Eat You." Unlike some producers who rarely visit a set, she was on location in Calgary and Jamaica every day.
"She's very hands-on, checking everything from costumes to hair to wardrobe to catering," said Leon, although he added that he doesn't see her becoming more directly involved. "She worked on the second unit for a while, and she said `Never again. I never want to direct.' "
For both actors, "Cool Runnings" represents more than a personal opportunity. It's a chance to boost the morale of Jamaicans, just as the 1988 Olympics did.
"I was just excited to see the thing made," said Lewis, a Trinidad native whose family moved to Los Angeles several years ago. "It's the first movie that doesn't present Jamaicans on a one-dimensional level. They're fully realized."
"It depicts them as real Jamaicans and not just the `Hey, mon' stereotypes that live in this mythical-comical place," said Leon, who spends several weeks a year in Jamaica. "It's my home away from home."
Leon recently introduced the movie at the Montreal Film Festival, where the audience embraced the story of four underdogs and their down-and-out coach (played by John Candy) as if it were their own.
"Everyone was applauding because they'd become part of our team," he said. "It was as if they were from Jamaica."
He added, "so many journalists have told us they wouldn't call it a comedy. It's not that they don't find it funny. But they end up comparing it to `Rocky,' because there's so much more there. People don't expect to be shedding tears, but they do."
How close does the script come to the truth?
"Not very," said Leon. "How they started and how they finished was the same, and there's real footage of their crash toward the end. But the characters don't have the same names, and they're not the same people. I do think the movie captures their spirit."
"They were laughed at, just as we are in the movie, and the obstacles were similar," said Lewis. "One of the bobsledders was on the set during the filming, and he gave us a thumbs up at the end of one scene. I think he was pleased with the way they were portrayed."