If the walls of a particular soundstage could talk, many of us ’80s kids would likely perform the Truffle Shuffle in exchange for the stories of the full-scale pirate ship once trapped inside.
The Goonies, released 35 years ago in the summer of 1985, is bookended by scenes shot on location in Astoria and Cannon Beach, Oregon, and Bodega Bay, California, but the bulk of the film was shot on a series of soundstages at Warner Bros. Studios, known then as the Burbank Studios, when Columbia Pictures shared the lot.
Towering above the other stages at Warner Bros., Stage 16 is monumental both in size and the enormity of the projects it’s hosted over the years.
“It’s kind of like a crown jewel of studio space for creativity because it’s so big and there’s a big [water] tank,” says Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter, who worked as the art director on The Goonies under the late, Oscar-nominated production designer J. Michael Riva.
Stage 16 measures 32,130 square feet and is 65 feet from the floor to the lighting grid, making it the largest stage on the Warner Bros. lot. A combination of two separate water tanks provides a total capacity of up to 95 feet of unobstructed production height.
“There’s something about Stage 16 that feels like if you can’t do it in there then your set is actually maybe too big,” says Carter.
Stage 16 wasn’t conceived as the monolith that’s standing today. It was built as Stage 7 in 1935 and became Stage 16 in 1972 when Columbia moved in. While it had an impressive footprint from the start, its 35-foot height was on par with other stages lining the Warner Bros. lot. Less than a year after its completion, the musical comedy Cain and Mabel (1936) was assigned to the stage. Starring Clark Gable and Marion Davies, the mistress of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the film called for camera angles and expansive set pieces that no stage on the lot could accommodate. It’s said that Davies went to studio head Jack Warner and asked him to heighten the stage. Warner balked at the $100,000 price tag, but relented when Hearst, whose production company had a stake in the film, agreed to foot the bill.
Not long after the historic renovation, films including Dark Victory (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and The Big Sleep (1946) shot on the stage. In 1953, the first of two water tanks were installed on the stage, and The 1953 installation of the first of two water tanks attracted filmmakers for decades to come. Though a handful of stages have eclipsed Stage 16 in square footage, it has remained one of the tallest active soundstages in the world.
Throughout much of the 1970s, when the escapism of the previous decades went on hiatus, the titanic stage nearly became obsolete. “People weren’t making big sets like that, or hadn’t been for awhile,” says Carter.
In a 1976 Honolulu Star Bulletin-Advertiser article about the Warner Bros. lot, the writer noted that the projects he observed shooting on soundstages were TV shows, and that the studio’s feature films were shooting on location. “In Stage 16,” the author writes, “there was nothing but empty space. Here once stood the interior of the Camelot castle.”
It’s a sight you’re not likely to see today, says Ian Corrigan, senior manager of studio operations at Warner Bros. Crews are always working in Stage 16, at least when there isn’t a pandemic. “The town is so busy and there’s so much production activity going on. Finding any stage availability is tough right now, but especially a stage of that size,” says Corrigan. “Stage 16 is unique enough that there are only a handful of other stages in all California that have that kind of capacity.”
The plaque that lists highlights from Stage 16’s history features only one film from the 1970s, the WWII-set comedy 1941 (1979), directed by none other than Steven Spielberg, would later conceive of and produce The Goonies.
Carter, who has designed ten Spielberg-directed films, notes that the landing site from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was one of the rare large sets built in the ‘70s. That year, Star Wars also came out and officially ushered in the era of the blockbuster and an amplified film aesthetic.
By the time he directed The Goonies, Richard Donner was no stranger to working on big sets built inside gigantic soundstages. His 1978 film Superman was partly shot on the largest soundstage in Europe. “It was called the 007 Stage. It was built for Bond,” says Donner. There, at Pinewood Studios outside of London, the exterior of the Fortress of Solitude was constructed.
Donner says that when it came to the Inferno, the ship of The Goonies’ famed 17th-century pirate, One-Eyed Willy, there was some discussion as to whether the ship would be built in pieces and filmed separately. He credits Riva for having the vision to create what would become one of the greatest sets of all time. “Michael had it in his mind, no matter what, that he was going to build a full-scale pirate ship,” says Donner. “That was it, and Michael was the kind of guy that wore blinders and delivered the best of the best.”
“It was Michael’s imagination, I think, that sparked it into a whole new level of Goonieness,” adds Carter. “I think Michael Riva was one of the prime Goonies.” Riva passed away in 2012 at the age of 63, while working on Django Unchained.
The discovery of the ship, finding the treasure, the reemergence of the bickering Fratellis and, finally, the Goonies’ escape, transpire over 18 minutes of screen time. “I think the idea of doing it as a big set came because there was just so much action on it,” says Carter. In pure Goonies fashion, Carter and Riva would have mock sword fights on pieces of plywood, prior to construction, to determine the most comfortable angle at which to anchor the ship.
Building the ship, interiors and all, as one gigantic set piece is self-reflexive of Stage 16’s history and the Errol Flynn-starring swashbuckler films from Warner Bros., like Captain Blood (1935), which is referenced in The Goonies. Carter says, “It’s a reference to movies, but it’s movies as history that is now being drawn upon to create a modern-day, real-life version of that fantasy.”
The script not only dictated the need for a pirate ship, but also a towering, enclosed cave surrounding a large pool of water in which the Inferno rested. As the story goes, One-Eyed Willy stole vast amounts of treasure and loaded it onto the Inferno. The British king sent an armada of ships to track down Willy and the treasure. After a battle of massive scale, the Inferno fled, but the British tracked Willy to a cave and blew up the walls around the ship, trapping Willy, his crew, and the treasure.
In the mid-80s, before major production hubs sprouted all over the world, the crews and infrastructure for building and shooting such a large scale set were only available in Los Angeles and London. Ghostbusters (1984), a quintessential New York film, shot most of its interiors in Los Angeles. The rooftop of Dana Barrett’s Central Park West apartment building was constructed on Stage 16. It was the only soundstage that provided the necessary height and a massive water tank in which to maroon One-Eyed Willy’s ship.
The tank on Stage 16 can hold almost 2.3 million gallons of water when using both the upper and lower tanks. It features an integrated water system and it takes about 16 hours to fill when both tanks are being employed. Corrigan says, “The studio has a great relationship with the city of Burbank. So we give them a courtesy heads up of when we want to do this stuff, so they’re aware 2.3 million gallons of water is about to leave the city’s infrastructure system.”
When a production wraps, draining the tank is not something the studio does lightly. First, it’s determined if the next production may require the use of the water in the tank. If not, communication between the studio and Burbank Water and Power is most important when the tank is pumped, as the city’s filtration system sees a spike in returned water supply.
“It is a lot of water for production purposes, but I would argue that most of that water comes back to the studio anyway as reclaimed water for all the grass, the foliage. Reclaimed water is used all over the lot,” says Corrigan.
The One-Eyed Willy set took about six months to build on Stage 16 estimates Jamie Orendorff, who was the stage foreman on The Goonies and was responsible for coordinating the construction of the set. Due to the required amount of crew, construction was done around the clock, in shifts. “Once we got into the ship, and the stage got too crowded for everybody, we started on twenty-four hours a day, where I would work on the ship with about a hundred guys during the daytime and another fifty guys came in on the night shift to work on the cave part,” says Orendorff.
The cave walls were built almost all the way up to the “perms,” or permanents, the grid system at the top of the soundstage. Today, Carter says, creating rock wall facades like those seen in The Goonies would be done by carving Styrofoam or using fiberglass formed by molds. But in the mid-‘80s it had to be done the old fashioned way – plaster. “It hadn’t been done in Hollywood for about a decade at that point…maybe a decade-and-a-half,” says Carter. “There hadn’t been any really big sets with rock walls and there weren’t as many plasterers as you would have thought that knew how to do it.” The plaster foreman, Carter says, had to call his father out of retirement because there weren’t enough experienced plasterers for a job of this magnitude. “I think they probably hired almost everybody in town because it was just wasn’t the kind of thing that people were used to,” says Carter.
Thirty-five years later, some details have muddied over time, but Orendorff says, without hesitation, that the Inferno was 138 feet long and 42 feet from the tank floor to the highest point of the rear deck. The mast extended to the perms.
It’s fairly well known among Goonies fans that Donner wanted to capture the actors’ natural reactions of seeing the ship for the first time. In order to keep the set under wraps, a giant curtain was hung inside the elephant door of Stage 16 so that no one, especially the kids, could see what was transpiring. “Some of the little buggers tried to sneak in,” says Donner, affectionately, “but the guards all had pictures of them.” On the day of shooting the reveal, the Goonies were led into the water, blindfolded, and faced away from the ship. “They were told they were going to jump down and come up and turn around, and what [you] saw was going to be the first expression on [their faces] of this entire, beautiful Willy’s pirate ship,” says Donner. “We had cameras on each one of them. So that’s what I was looking for, the amazement of a child.”
In 2020, it’s fair to assume that if the ship were recreated in this day and age, filmmakers might opt for visual effects as a method to build the Inferno. “I’m not sure it would be the right choice,” says Carter, “because there is something that’s still quite intangible as a difference between something that is really there physically and something that is added in to the film digitally, or optically, or in whatever way, to create the final look of it.”
Mikey, Data, Mouth, all of the Goonies, are actually inside that ship. Gun ports in the hull reveal a physical space where waterfalls create a mist of atmospheric perspective inside a cinematic playground in which the actors can immerse themselves. The childlike wonder that Donner wanted to capture comes through on screen naturally.
“If you wanted to do it a different way, like, say, ‘Well, we’re just going to build part of it, and we’re just going to shoot this part over here and this over here,’ people can do that and then it shows up in the final film,” says Carter. “Physical presence has something that we just respond to, even when it’s photographed.”
Following The Goonies, Stage 16 has been home for some equally large sets.
After shooting Batman (1989) in London, Tim Burton brought Batman Returns (1992) to his hometown of Burbank where, inside Stage 16, the production created a snow-covered Gotham Plaza complete with a 40-foot Christmas tree.
Carter returned to Stage 16, this time as production designer, on Jurassic Park (1993) for the rainy nighttime sequence in which the T-rex ferociously breaks loose from its pen. Interestingly, an article from the Harrisburg Sunday Courier from 1936 reported that Warner Bros. was using the stage as “weather headquarters,” as the height of the newly remodeled space provided sufficient elevation for rain effects to gain realistic momentum.
Las Vegas has been created on Stage 16 on a couple of occasions. Ocean’s 13 (2007) constructed a three-level, 360 degree casino complete with slot machines, escalators and a koi pond. For The Hangover Part III (2013), the roof of Caesars Palace was built for a scene in which Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) repel into the penthouse suite.
Christopher Nolan shot parts of Inception (2010), Dunkirk (2017) and his new film Tenet (2020) inside Stage 16.
While the on-screen reveal of One-Eyed Willy’s pirate ship has lived on as part of Goonies lore, it’s Donner’s summation of the set that is of note.
“It was probably the biggest build I was ever on that I remember being kind of emotionally committed to,” says Donner. “It stopped you in your tracks. It was probably what Hollywood once was. And in a strange way, when you were looking at it, as when you left it, you were hoping you’d save the ship. But you weren’t going to save the set—the design—and probably no one was going to build anything like that again. It was an emotional experience.”
In fact, Donner tried saving the ship. “I called every amusement park in the United States and offered to deliver that ship to them,” says Donner.
Orendorff recalls talking to Six Flags. “They were very interested, and wanted to take it and turn it into a restaurant. I pointed out to them that it wasn’t built to move. It could be moved, but it would be very expensive to move, and I think they just weren’t prepared to pay that much at the time,” says Orendorff. Of course, nobody knew how successful the film would be.
“It had to be destroyed, and that was heartbreaking,” says Donner.
An inquiry with he studio revealed that, to the best of their knowledge, remnants of the ship do not exist in the studio archives, which, though disappointing, is understandable. With the advent of eBay in the ‘90s, precious movie memorabilia would often show up for sale on the Internet. Today, studio archives are thorough and protective when it comes to preserving artifacts from their productions.
But is there ever a chance we’d see One-Eyed Willy’s ship return to Stage 16 for a long-speculated Goonies sequel? “Hard to say. You won’t see it from me,” says Donner, who recently turned 90. “There could be the search for the ship itself. Where did it go? Did it sink? Did it sail off on its own? Who knows? It’s up to the creators. If they do it—I hope they don’t, but if they do—I wish them all the success in the world because we’re the ones who set it free.”