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Why the opening scene of Tim Burton's 'Mars Attacks!' got the original writer fired
Writer Jonathan Gems angered the studio by refusing to make one key Mars Attacks! change.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Mars Attacks!, director Tim Burton's wild sci-fi alien invasion comedy about a group of freaky looking Martians, the often inept humans trying to stop their invasion, and the very strange solution that ultimately repels them. Even amid the quirks of the rest of Burton's filmography, Mars Attacks! still stands out today as a particularly big swing, one that didn't necessarily hit with audiences and critics at the time. Still, the years have been kind to the film, which still has plenty of ardent defenders who've loved it for years and continues to widen its audience with home media.
In celebration of the film's birthday, Inverse published an expansive new oral history about the film this week, digging into its origins, the challenges of making it, and the ripple effects of its underwhelming release. Of course, it wouldn't be a Mars Attacks! story without some particularly strange moments, and one of those comes when original writer Jonathan Gems explains why he was fired from the film after writing several drafts. Apparently, it has a lot to do with cows.
Gems was working on an unrelated project with Burton in the 1990s when he stumbled upon a set of collectible Mars Attacks trading cards and brought them to the director. Burton was ultimately so into the visuals the idea offered that he and Gems began to talk about making the cards into a film, and Gems got to work on the screenplay. In the writing process, Gems incorporated many different visual elements of the Martian invasion into the film, often from the cards themselves, including an image of burning cows running for their lives in the movie's opening scene.
To the screenwriter, it felt like a wonderfully bizarre way to kick off the invasion. To the studio, it was... something else.
"I got in trouble with the studio because they would ask me to do changes, and sometimes I wouldn’t do them," Gems said. "They told me you can’t have burning cows at the beginning of the film. I thought it was a good opening. Every time I did a new draft, they’d say, 'The cows are still in. We can’t have burning cows.' I said, 'It’s not real cows that are burning.' But they said, 'No, you cannot do that – animal cruelty.' I think it was the 11th draft, they said, 'If the burning cows are in the next draft, you will be fired.' So I did try but I couldn’t think of anything better, so I did deliver the new script with the burning cows. And they fired me."
Gems was eventually the film's sole credited writer, but producers did bring in Ed Wood writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander to rewrite his script along the way. Still, losing his writer wasn't enough to scare Burton out of the burning cows. The image stayed in, and is one of the first things you see in the opening minutes of Mars Attacks!.
"That’s one of the cards," Burton said. "That’s a good image, burning cows. It’s always funny when studios fight to kick stuff out. That is basically why you’re doing it."
Given how strange and messed-up Mars Attacks! ultimately became later in the film, perhaps the studio was eventually grateful that Burton only wanted to keep the burning cows.