I try not to do too much stuff just because someone on Craigslist says to. But someone on Craigslist recommended the book The Devil's Candy by Julie Salamon. I went for it, and ended a very pleasureable week with it last night.
As I read the book, I wondered, what makes a work of nonfiction interesting? On the same library trip, I checked out a biography of Sir Thomas Mallory, author of Le Morte D'Arthur. I read the book in college and enjoyed it greatly, and was interested to know more about the author's life. I figured that since I'd been very interested in Arthurian legend, and liked European history, I'd like the book. Hated it. Abandoned after about 40 pages. This book, on the other hand, is about the making of a movie I didn't see and only dimly remember, based on a book I haven't read. And it held my attention all the way through. I was actually sorry when it ended.
The book is about the making of the 1990 movie "The Bonfire of the Vanities," starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis and directed by Brian De Palma. Unlike the movie, however, hundreds of other people have major roles in the book. Ann Roth, the wardrobe designer. Eric Schwab, the second unit director, responsible for the scenes in the movie that establish mood. Lucy Fisher, Rob Friedman, and other execs at Warner Brothers. Aimee Morris and the other production assistants. Salamon thoughtfully provides a list of players before her tale even opens, which I found myself referring back to frequently.
Salamon keeps the book interesting by putting real characters into it. As she follows Eric Schwab out onto the airport runway in pursuit of the most spectacular plane landing scene he could film, she also follows the thoughts in his head: his burning ambition, his desire for recognition, his dreams of doing his own picture, so that you see why it matters. You get invested in everyone's petty triumphs and setbacks in the course of making the film. You're happy for Aimee Morris, who earns a promotion from production assistant to Brian De Palma's personal assistant. You cheer for Schwab when he gets his shot and wins a $100 bet with De Palma that he could never film a plane landing innovative enough to make the final cut of the movie. You feel De Palma's frustration at not being able to find the courtroom he needs for the movie's pivotal scene. And you're pissed at the studio for shutting down the New York production and moving it to Los Angeles where they had more control. Yet, when you hear the decision from their angle, it makes sense too.
This book is a good look at how movies are actually made. If you've ever wondered just what a grip does, or what exactly is the responsibility of the production designer, this book will explain it better than any of those "Who Does What in the Movies" types of books. It explores the millions of decisions that have to be made on every single shot (day or night? how many people in the background? what kind of weather? what will the hair look like? makeup? clothing? how about on the background people?). You can see where $40 million dollars could go. You may even be amazed that it's not a whole lot more.
Bonfire flopped. I'm not ruining the ending by telling you that, even if you don't remember on your own. The title of the last chapter is "You've gotta be a genius to make a movie this bad", and you can feel the book building towards a less-than-satisfactory finished product. The book made me want to see for myself, so I rented the movie the other night. I fell asleep before the end, but I didn't like it much. I thought Tom Hanks was a total nonentity in his role. He was supposed to be a shallow, venal bond trader and philanderer. He came off like a stick of vanilla. The movie was slow-moving, but funny at parts. And yet, I could see its potential. Eric Schwab's opening skyline shot from the Chrysler Building was breathtaking, as was his sunset Concorde landing. I liked the way the trading room floor was shot, with the distortion around the edges, and the deal scene shot from overhead ("from the perspective of a true Master of the Universe.") It was a good bad movie.
It was hard to tell the true moral of this story. The problems with the film didn't seem to be easy to lay at the feet of any one individual. It was more like a stacking effect. And maybe also bad timing: the book was supposed to be the definitive 80s satire, and yet the movie came out as that era was ending. It was too early to be a period piece, too late to feel contemporary. Salamon alluded to problems with adaptation, as well: how the book had an edginess that would be difficult to translate to the big screen. Tom Wolfe had minimal involvement in the film project, and once it was released, stayed diplomatic. Maybe involving the author more would've saved it.
Or maybe not. This movie should've been a winner, packed with big-name actors, based on a best-selling novel, with an excellent director. They tested it several times and re-edited based on the results, and it still flopped, grossing only 15.4 million over 45 days. I came to appreciate what a tricky business it is to forecast what people will like. Even with all of Hollywood's research methods, they still get it wrong -- frequently. Not true for Salamon. She wrote an excellent book about moviemaking, and I recommend it. I don't know how much of it still holds true, but I'd love to see her write another similar book if she hasn't already, now that it's been nearly 20 years.