DE PALMA READ WOLFE'S 'BONFIRE', THEN LISTENED TO AUDIOBOOK OVER AND OVER PRIOR TO PRODUCTION
As we look back on Brian De Palma's film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire Of The Vanities from 1990, there's a lot seemingly packed into just this tiny part of Tim Golden's New York Times article about the making of the movie, which was printed in the newspaper the Sunday prior to the film's opening day:
Mr. De Palma first read the novel while in Thailand shooting the film "Casualties of War." He became saturated in it while driving cars and flying on airplanes, listening over and over to tapes of the book read by the actor John Lithgow. Hearing the scenes effectively acted out reinforced the director's sense of the story as "basically a flat-tire comedic farce."
"Everybody says all the time, 'Why is this movie so funny?' " Mr. De Palma said, almost exasperated. "I think the problem is that nobody reads these scenes out loud."
In retrospect, it seems almost obvious that De Palma's next film would be the John Lithgow showcase Raising Cain. But we can remember here the exchange between Bucky and Kay in De Palma's film of The Black Dahlia--
Bucky: "Well, it sure explains some things."
Kay: "No, it doesn't."
Incidentally, Lolita Davidovich is one of the actors who screen-tested with Tom Hanks for the part of Maria, on the same day that Uma Thurman was brought back in to screen test with Hanks. Hanks seemed hooked on Melanie Griffith for the role, and he got his wish. According to Julie Salamon in her book The Devil's Candy, De Palma, who had been pushing to cast Uma Thurman, conceded after the screen test that Hanks may have been right all along. And apparently, Lolita Davidovich made a strong enough impression on De Palma for him to think of her for his next thriller.
Salamon's concluding chapter finds De Palma beginning to work on what would become Raisng Cain:
De Palma felt completely lost. In the past he'd felt that he learned something from reviews. They made him think about whether the drill in "Body Double" had been excessive, for example. But he didn't know what to make of this kind of criticism -- Kael saying the opening Steadicam shot wasn't really funny because it was "too precise." The other reviews were variations on one theme, and he stated that theme, "'How could you trivialize this masterwork?' They act as though I've done the National Lampoon version of Hamlet."
He spent the days reading and working out the script for the thriller he'd been thinking about for months. It was the story of a man whose father had conducted psychological experiments on him as a boy, hoping to create the perfect child. The father's experiments continued, and now the son was helping him by kidnapping children to be subjects, killing a few mothers and nannies along the way. De Palma saw the pitfalls in actually directing this film, but it was a pleasurable diversion.
He still felt that his decision to make "Bonfire" had been the right one. "You always have to make an assessment of where you are," he said, "and then you wind up somewhere else. I get less and less joy out of making movies. The process you go through. You've got to find that joy again or you're going to stop making them.
"A lot of what takes the joy out of it are the tremendous economic pressures. There's so much on the line. The bigger the film, the more you come into conflict with the studio. There are more battles."
As he worked out the details for his thriller -- figuring out the killer's pyschological make-up, imagining how to stage the murders -- De Palma felt some of that old joy. "I wanted to make movies because I had strong visual ideas," he said. That's how I started making movies and that's where I'm going to try to return to." But he knew it was going to be difficult. He knew how quickly a career could be undone. Whatever happened next, he knew "Bonfire" had been a turning point for him. He didn't know where he was going, but he knew he would never again feel the same about himself or his place in the business.
De Palma never quite understood why people hated "Bonfire" so much. He didn't understand why people behaved as though he'd sat in a room trying to make the worst movie imaginable when in fact he'd thought he was making a good movie. "While I was making 'Bonfire,' I saw what was there and it worked. I figured, It worked for me, it'll work for everybody else," he said. "But I think there was an alienation factor. I think after a while they thought, Why do I have to watch all this stuff. I'll just close my eyes and listen to what they have to say."
And then he started to cackle. "I guess this taught me one thing. I have a strange sense of humor," he said. "I guess most people don't share it."