How we made: Cool Runnings, the comedy classic about the Jamaica bobsled team

Jon Turteltaub, director

I was at film school prepping my final project when I saw the Jamaican bobsled team competing at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. I remember thinking: “These athletes don’t seem to think they’re as funny as everyone else does.” That’s what stuck in my head: how often do any of us step outside what’s easy, and do something incredible?

Lynn Siefert’s original screenplay, Blue Maaga, was more dramatic. It was rewritten by Tommy Swerdlow and Michael Goldberg, both fun personalities filled with talent and confidence. I heard later from Tommy that he did the rewrite while using heroin. I was always such a square. I was clueless about all that stuff.

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The lead actors – Leon Robinson, Doug E Doug, Malik Yoba and Rawle Lewis – had such perfect Jamaican accents that there was a fear non-Jamaicans wouldn’t understand them. Jeffrey Katzenberg, then chairman of Walt Disney Studios, was getting very frustrated and I began to worry he’d fire me if I couldn’t get them to speak the way Sebastian the crab did in The Little Mermaid. But instead of coming up with some fancy, directorial reason why they should lessen the Jamaican accent while representing the dignity of their Caribbean heritage, I just mumbled: “I’m going to get fired if you don’t sound like Sebastian.” They laughed and saved my job, doing so without compromising their authenticity.

During production I got to cross something off my bucket list: going to a hockey match with John Candy. We were in Calgary and it was a dream come true. John and I left the game early so he wouldn’t get mobbed by fans, but it happened anyway. He signed every autograph he was asked for. It took us 20 minutes to walk the 30 metres out of the arena.

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The movie had some great titles as it travelled the world. It was released as Cold Buttocks in Norway, and Rasta Rockett in France. My favourite was the Italian translation: they called it Four Below Zero, or Quattro Sottozero.

Rewritten as a comedy … Cool Runnings.

Rewritten as a comedy … Cool Runnings. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

It meant so much to me that the film was loved in Jamaica. I felt I had given the people there something to be really proud of, and something they could laugh about at the same time. I loved the line spoken by Malik’s Yul Brenner character: “We’re different. People always afraid of what’s different.” It puts a different spin on hatred – for Yul to have that wisdom shows that his character experienced this before, and his own anger comes from a vulnerable place.

After Cool Runnings I not only got sent a lot of similar sports screenplays, but also every family movie being made. It got so bad that at one point I received a script called Amanda. Without reading a word, I picked up the phone and said to my agent: “What kind of animal is it, and what’s wrong with the kid?” There was a long pause before the reply came: “It’s a horse and a brain tumour.”

Doug E Doug, actor, played Sanka Coffie

I was co-producing and starring in a TV show called Where I Live when I heard about the script. The first attempt at making the movie never happened. When it was rewritten as a comedy, I was happy to recommit to the project, but also cautious. Comedy is a delicate thing to pull off, and I didn’t want to visit any dishonour upon these heroic characters.

Doug E Doug as Sanka Coffie.

Doug E Doug as Sanka Coffie. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Insurance prevented us from racing for real, but we still had to push and board the sled. I don’t know if the other guys were scared, but I certainly wondered if we might accidentally go down the ice. I had a couple of fearful moments climbing in: it was almost as uncomfortable as the scene where I’m on the island, prepping for the Calgary weather by crouching inside an ice-cream wagon. That’s not real frost in my dreads, by the way: we used dry ice. And it was hot as Jamaica in that truck.

I’ve been recognised as Sanka every waking moment of my existence. I’m very happy that millennials and Generation Y – my children – love our little bobsled movie so much. Recently, I learned that the Jamaican racers who qualified for the 2014 Russian Olympics described themselves as “Cool Runnings: the second generation.” Maybe they were inspired by the sight of the four of us carrying that broken sled towards the finish line for the film’s climax. It was pretty heavy. All hands were needed to lift it.

On a lighter note, people often ask me if I still have Sanka’s egg. I do. It’s coming soon to eBay.


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