By Shelley Levitt
May 29, 1995 12:00 PM

SOME 200 YEARS AGO, KING KAMEHAMEHA I, ruler of the Big Island of Hawaii, built a temple on a bluff overlooking Kawaihae Harbor. The king dedicated the shrine to the war gods and offered up human sacrifices. Last May, one month before Kevin Costner’s epic Waterworld began shooting in the pristine waters outside the harbor, 300 members of the cast and crew gathered on the pier and made their own attempt to appease the deities, enlisting a kahuna (high priest) to bless the site. “We wanted the ceremony,” says Wayne Awai, 46, a local crew member, “because we thought it would be a good omen.”

It wasn’t. That same month, Water-world’s female lead, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and 12-year-old actress Tina Majorino were aboard a trimaran, a French-built sailboat, when suddenly the bowsprit snapped, plunging both actresses into the sea. Nearly a dozen rescue divers jumped in after them and quickly brought them back on board.

Nor was that the only close call. In December, Costner, one of the movie’s producers and its star, was strapped 40 feet in the air to the mast of a sailboat. Suddenly, ferocious winds whipped up and Costner was pelted by seawater, his body hammered against the mast. For 30 minutes, the crew stood by helplessly, knowing it was too dangerous to lower Costner to safety. “I nearly died,” he told a friend later.

Mishaps often occur on a movie set, but there was hardly an uneventful day during the making of Waterworld. The thriller is set in the future, after a massive glacial meltdown has left most of the planet submerged. Costner stars as Mariner, a mutant creature with gills and fins, who tries to lead a group of survivors to dry land. The movie could yet turn out to be a spectacular hit: the Jurassic Park of 1995. Yet since the summer of 1993, when preproduction began, Waterworld has been, says production designer Dennis Gassner, “18 months of hell,” owing to everything from bad weather to the complexities of pumping sewage from the dozens of floating toilets.

This is a movie that started big and kept getting bigger. Universal first estimated it would cost $65 million and take four months to shoot. Today, Waterworld’s budget has reportedly bloated to an unprecedented $175 million, some $55 million more than the cost of 1994’s True Lies, the previous most expensive movie of all time. Waterworld took eight months to make, and Costner is closeted now in the editing room, racing to meet the film’s premiere date of July 28.

What went wrong? Eventually, just about everything. Scores of cast and crew members, including Costner, were afflicted with debilitating attacks of seasickness as they shot scenes on boats, barges and man-made islands. One major set sank under 180 feet of water, necessitating a costly salvage job. Costner’s stuntman came up from a dive too fast one day and suffered a near-fatal case of the bends. Jellyfish stung everyone’s legs and shoulders. And three weeks ago the movie’s director, Kevin Reynolds, quit after battling with Costner and the studio over their visions of the film. “Costner wanted to do a heroic Errol Flynn-type movie,” says Gassner, “but Reynolds wanted a less passionate character.”

For its still boyishly handsome, 40-year-old star, the shoot was agonizing. Though he was earning $14 million and living in a $l,800-a-night oceanside bungalow, Costner looked, says one extra, “like he needed a hug.” No wonder. After a string of hits, his recent movies A Perfect World and The War had bombed big-time. And though Costner took time off from Waterworld to promote Wyatt Earp, that turned out to be another flop. Meanwhile his personal relationships were collapsing. Reynolds had been an old friend of Costner’s, his handpicked director on 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And in October, Costner announced that he and his wife, Cindy, who have three children, were ending their 16-year marriage.

Though Costner is praised by crew members for being friendly and accessible, he couldn’t avoid reminders of his personal troubles. Encountering an extra reading a tabloid that had Costner’s marital problems splashed across its cover, he said politely but firmly, “I don’t want to see that here again.”

Waterworld wasn’t always such a pit of money and misfortune. Written in the late ’80s by a recent Harvard grad named Peter Rader, it was originally bought by tiny New World Pictures and budgeted at $3 million. Two years ago, when Universal took on the project, it was budgeted at almost $10 million more than the $56 million Jurassic Park. By the time production started, the tab had risen to nearly $100 million.

What made Waterworld so expensive, in the end, was the water. Almost every scene had to be shot on a floating set. Three hundred workers toiled for three months to build the movie’s main stage, a 1,000-ton atoll constructed from wood, papier-mâché and steel. During production thousands of locals were hired as construction workers, extras and divers. The movie, says one crew member, was “like a blank check.”

For six weeks, 425 extras and crew had to be ferried every day to the atoll floating 1,000 yards offshore. “Some days,” says one stuntman, “by the time we got out to the water, we’d have to break for lunch without having gotten a single shot.” Shooting stopped for clouds, strong wind or when humpback whales came within camera range. Even on calm days ocean swells kept pulling the camera boats apart, meaning that the same scene would have to be shot four or five times to make sure the filming angles would match in the editing room. One 10-minute action scene, scheduled to take a week, ate up an entire month.

Waterworld is going to have to be a swimaway success to recoup its costs. In order for the studio to break even, the movie will have to sell $265 million worldwide in tickets, thus rivaling the take of The Silence of the Lambs. Christopher Borde of Paul Kagan Associates, media analysts, sketches one scenario in which Waterworld earns $125 million in U.S. ticket sales, but makes up the difference in TV and video rights, overseas sales and merchandising tie-ins. Borde thinks it will be difficult, but Costner has made people eat their predictions before. Hollywood insiders thought he was crazy when he held up The Bodyguard for a year while he waited for Whitney Houston, who had never acted before, to star with him. Bodyguard went on to earn $370 million in worldwide box-office receipts. He was also ridiculed for making his directing debut with Dances with Wolves, a 3-hour epic complete with subtitles. Wolves made $365 million worldwide and won Costner an Oscar as Best Director.

A recent screening of an unfinished cut of Waterworld, held in Sacramento, earned mixed reviews. “The sailing scenes and scenery were quite terrific,” one viewer told the Los Angeles Times, but another griped, “The sharks looked fake.” Coincidentally or not, a crew is now shooting additional shark footage. Make that $175 million—and counting.