13 Royal Facts About Three Kings On Its 20th Anniversary
By Garin Pirnia
On October 1, 1999, Warner Bros. released David O. Russell’s war-action-comedy Three Kings. Originally based off a script written by John Ridley called Spoils of War, it stars George Clooney—who, at the time, was still known primarily as a TV actor—as U.S. Army Special Forces Major Archie Gates. Pre-action film actor Mark Wahlberg plays U.S. Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow, Ice Cube stars as Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin, and director Spike Jonze (whose Being John Malkovich came out less than a month later) portrays Private First Class Conrad Vig.
The film takes place in March of 1991, shortly after the Gulf War ended. The men—who are based in Iraq—embark on a mission to steal back millions in gold that Saddam Hussein had taken from Kuwait. The film wasn’t filmed in the Middle East; instead, it was filmed in the Arizona desert, California, and Mexico. A year after the film came out, George W. Bush was elected president, and soon the U.S. was mired in another Iraq war. Budgeted at $50 million, the film grossed more than $107 million worldwide. Here are 13 royal facts about the movie.
1. David O. Russell spent 18 months researching and writing the script.
A logline in Warner’s logbook caught writer/director David O. Russell’s attention. The logline, written by John Ridley, stated Spoils of War was “a heist set in the Gulf War.” “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Russell told Creative Screenwriting. “I started buying books about the Gulf—photojournalist books that had amazing images in them, like hundreds of soldiers being stripped in the desert and Bart Simpson dolls on grills of cars. All this incongruous stuff. So I went off, researched, and wrote it for 18 months. It was a fun scriptwriting process, like no other I’d ever done. It’s not character-driven, which is obvious from the movie. There was very volatile material which hadn’t been put in the face of Americans about what really happened there. I read papers, talked to veterans and Iraqis. Then I sewed together the quilt of this script. It was liberating, because it was blank as the desert, a palette where I could do a lot of different things, including action, which I hadn’t done before.”
2. John Ridley didn't think David O. Russell gave him enough credit.
Russell said the only thing he used from Ridley’s original script was the “heist set in the Gulf War” part. “That was all I took from his script, and frankly, that’s the most boring thing about the movie,” Russell said. Ridley told Entertainment Weekly he wrote the script “to see how fast I could write and sell a screenplay,” which turned out to be seven days (writing) and only 18 days to sell it. But after Russell took hold of the script, relations between the two soured.
“This is a guy who every step of the way has tried to grab credit,” Ridley said. “I never heard a word while he was shooting the movie. Never saw any of the script changes. And then finally, a year later, I get a copy of the script, and my name isn’t even on it. It’s ‘by David O. Russell.’ My name is nowhere.” Ridley eventually received a story and co-producer credit, even though Russell rewrote most of the script. “It’s still my story,” Ridley said.
“I don’t understand what his whining is about, because it’s the most common experience in Hollywood,” Russell said. “You write a script, you sell it, and get paid. Goodbye. If he wants to direct his own scripts, he should control them a little bit. If he thinks it’s such a work of genius, I think he’d let me publish my script. I even offered to publish both scripts in one volume.”
Ridley blocked Russell’s attempt to publish Three Kings in book form. “I’ve been completely disrespected through this whole process and now they’re asking for a favor? The answer is no.” Despite what Ridley went through, his career has continued to rise; in 2014, he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. (Five-time Oscar nominee Russell has yet to win a golden guy).
3. George Clooney begged David O. Russell to be in the movie.
Nicolas Cage was in contention for the role of Major Gates, until he opted to make Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead instead. Clooney read the script and wanted to be in the film, so he wrote a letter to Russell and signed it “George Clooney, TV Actor.” He was so desperate to be cast, he proffered the director an early cut of Out of Sight, and went to Russell’s house.
“He opened the door with his video camera,” Clooney told Entertainment Weekly. "It’s very annoying. And [Russell] said, ‘Does this bother you?’ And I said, ‘It will only if I don’t get the job … If I end up in The Making of Three Kings and I’m not in the movie, then I’ll look like an a**hole.'"
4. David O. Russell decided against using a lot of bullets.
Though it’s a war film, Russell purposefully didn’t want a lot of bullets used in the action sequences. “The whole approach I took to the bullets in the movie was that I tried to make each bullet alive," Russell told Contact Music. "The audience has been numbed to bullets. So, number one, that means fewer bullets. If you have hundreds of bullets, like in other movies, you're going to be numbed.”
One scene tracks a hypothetical bullet entering Wahlberg, which came about from Russell asking a doctor friend about what a bullet does to the body. “I said, ‘What’s the weirdest wound?’ and he described that particular wound [used in the movie]. You can get a wound that doesn't kill you. A bullet goes through your lung and you can walk around, but the air is leaking out of your lung every time you breathe, so your own breathing can kill you because your own breathing will crush your organs. It will turn into a balloon in there. And they have to puncture it to let the air out. So he told me those two things, and I said, ‘God, that's never been in a movie. I'd like to do that.’”
5. David O. Russell started a rumor about using a real corpse for filming.
After a Newsweek reporter interrogated Russell with aggressive questions he didn’t want to answer, the director decided to invent a story about using a real corpse in the aforementioned bullet scene. “I said that we used an actual corpse … and we had only one take using a high-speed camera to get that bullet going right through, and the toughest thing was getting a light in there,” he told Creative Screenwriting. “So he writes the thing up and the next thing the morticians’ association is calling Warner Bros. and protesting the unethical use of a corpse. It was kind of fun. Harmless.”
Russell further explained to news outlets that the rumor was false. “The intention [of the shot] was to make it look like a bullet going through a corpse. It would be unethical to use a corpse like that. To achieve the effect, we had to build a prosthesis.”
6. George Clooney called the making of Three Kings "the worst experience" of his life.
In what would become a famed feud, the director and actor got huffy with each other on the set of Three Kings. "For me, it came to a head a couple of times," Clooney explained in an interview with Playboy. "Once, he went after a camera-car driver who I knew from high school. I had nothing to do with his getting his job, but David began yelling and screaming at him and embarrassing him in front of everybody. I told him, 'You can yell and scream and even fire him, but what you can’t do is humiliate him in front of people. Not on my set, if I have any say about it.' Another time he screamed at the script supervisor and made her cry. I wrote him a letter and said, 'Look, I don’t know why you do this. You’ve written a brilliant script, and I think you’re a good director. Let’s not have a set like this. I don’t like it and I don’t work well like this.'"
Cooler heads prevailed until the two experienced a stressful day of filming which entailed helicopters and 300 extras. According to Clooney, Russell threw an extra to the ground and kicked him. Clooney tried to calm the director down, but it didn’t work. “I went over and put my arm around him,” Clooney said. “I said, ‘David, it’s a big day. But you can’t shove, push, or humiliate people who aren’t allowed to defend themselves.’ He turned on me and said, ‘Why don’t you just worry about your f***ed-up act? You’re being a dick. You want to hit me? You want to hit me? Come on, p***y, hit me.’ I’m looking at him like he’s out of his mind. Then he started banging me on the head with his head. He goes, ‘Hit me, you p***y. Hit me.’ Then he got me by the throat and I went nuts ... I had him by the throat. I was going to kill him. Kill him. Finally, he apologized, but I walked away. By then the Warner Bros. guys were freaking out. David sort of pouted through the rest of the shoot and we finished the movie, but it was truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life.”
Since the incident, they’ve been frenemies. Clooney talked to Russell at a party a few years ago. “I felt compelled to go over and go, 'So are we done?'” Clooney told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “He goes, ‘Please.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ Because we made a really, really great film, and we had a really rough time together, but it’s a case of both of us getting older. I really do appreciate the work he continues to do, and I think he appreciates what I'm trying to do.”
In 2013, Russell told The New York Times the fight’s now water under the bridge. “George and I had a friendly rapport last year. I don’t know if we would be working together. I don’t think we would rule it out. But the point is, much ado was made about things long passed.”
7. David O. Russell wrote the character of Private Vig with Spike Jonze in mind.
“I wrote this character with him in mind,” Russell told Entertainment Weekly. Three Kings was Jonze’s first major film role, and as Private Vig, he had to employ a Southern accent. Russell practiced with Jonze to see if he could pull it off for the movie. “All last summer when Spike was shooting Malkovich we would speak on the phone in Southern accents because I wanted to see if he could do it—because it would really ruin our friendship if he tried and it didn’t work out.” After Warner Bros. approved the casting, Jonze was in. “I like the chaos that a non-actor brings to the set,” Russell said. “He has a level of realism because he hasn’t been through it before, and he really shakes things up.”
8. Christian Bale auditioned for the movie.
More than a decade before he won an Oscar for Russell’s The Fighter, Christian Bale auditioned for the role of Private Vig. “Well, I won’t go into it, but I auditioned for Three Kings and it didn't go very well for me,” Bale said. Russell, who was also on the show, joked, “The world is filled with actors who have audition stories."
9. Ice Cube would like to make a sequel.
When, in 2014, The Believer asked Ice Cube if he’d be interested in shooting a sequel to Three Kings, he said absolutely. “I think that movie is much more understood today than when it came out,” Cube explained. “I think it was hell of a movie. Me and Mark became friends, Clooney was always cool even when I was whipping his ass on the basketball court. David was real cool … It was a social commentary of what was going on. That film discussed the politics of Papa Bush, and now we are dealing with Baby Bush, and I think the film is probably more relevant today than when it came out.”
10. George Clooney injured Nora Dunn with an apple.
During filming, Nora Dunn—who plays TV reporter Adriana Cruz—heckled Clooney. “I was like, ‘You watch it because I’ll hit you. I’m not scared of hitting women,’” Clooney told Entertainment Weekly. After she yelled for him to bring it on, he attached an apple to a car antenna and catapulted it in her direction, where it hit her in the forehead. “There were 300 troops in the scene, and I ran around getting high-fives from everybody,” he said. But Dunn wasn’t so celebratory. “He almost knocked me out,” she said. ”He felt bad, but not that bad.”
11. Bill Clinton appreciated the movie.
Then-POTUS Bill Clinton invited Russell to the White House to screen the film for him. “We showed the movie and it was a real quiet house,” Russell told Creative Screenwriting. “I was dying. The humor is not like There’s Something About Mary’s humor in big block letters: HEY, LAUGH AT THIS! LAUGH AT THIS! The material is as disturbing as it is funny. So I think people were self-conscious about laughing at stuff in front of the President so they wouldn’t commit a faux pas.”
Apparently, Clinton liked the movie. “There were a couple times where Clinton guffawed really loudly and my wife elbowed me and said, ‘Bubba likes that.’ After the movie, to my pleasant surprise, he held a two-hour impromptu seminar about the history of Iraq policy going back to the 1920s when the artificial borders were created. He’s a bright guy and he was cool. He said, ‘Apart from being a fabulous movie, this is an important movie because people need to know how this war really ended.’ He’s not shy about that sh*t.”
12. Warner Bros. declined to include a documentary David O. Russell made on the war for a DVD released.
Warner Bros. wanted to put the movie back in theaters in time for the 2004 election, and they also wanted to package a new DVD with additional material. “I didn’t have any more deleted scenes, or at least nothing that was worth tacking on to a DVD,” Russell told The Believer. “So I decided to do a short documentary. Not about the movie itself, but about the situation in Iraq.” The doc’s called Soldiers Pay, and Warner decided not to include it on the DVD. “It was too political for them,” Russell said. “I asked a lot of questions about this war.” The filmmaker felt the documentary would “be useful to voters before the election,” but Warner pulled out saying it was “logistically impossible” to release it. The IFC Channel ended up airing the doc the night before the 2004 election.
13. David O. Russell had an ominous meeting with George W. Bush while editing the movie.
“This was before he’d even gotten the nomination,” Russell told The Believer. “He was at a gathering at the home of the Chairman of Warner Bros. I was invited and was introduced to him, and I told him that I was making a film that would question his father’s legacy in Iraq. At first, he looked at me like, ‘Who the f*ck is this guy?’ And then he went cowboy and said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just have to go back and finish the job, won’t I?’ That was in July of ’99. He was planning to invade Iraq long before he had any idea if he’d even get elected."