Long before the popularity of oat bran and StairMasters, Americans were mad for a health craze that featured detoxification through fasts, low-fat diets, and enemas. Among its most zealous proponents: the early-20th-century breakfast cereal inventor Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, whose Battle Creek, Mich., spa is fictionalized in the sprawling comedy The Road to Wellville, based on T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1993 novel and opening in September.
The cast includes a buck-toothed Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg, Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick as a couple seeking solace at his institute, John Cusack as a doomed entrepreneur, and Dana Carvey as Kellogg’s vengeful son. The waistcoated characters may look as if they’re out of The Age of Innocence, but ”the difference between our film and theirs,” says director Alan Parker, ”is ours isn’t boring.”
With a budget of only $25 million, the crew had to tighten purse strings. Costumer Penny Rose raided period clothing houses in London and Rome, moving extras around to disguise using the same dresses in many scenes. And the same sets on the Wilmington, N.C., soundstage were dressed and redressed to simulate a labyrinth of rooms for massage, showers, and exercise (the nursing station was transformed into the fecal-analysis room).
For the numerous gizmos that fill the spa, Parker and set designer Brian Morris took inspiration from a visit to the onetime site of Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, as well as London’s VA hospital. Working from Parker’s sketches, a London prop company created a flagellation machine, nose douches, shaking chairs, sunlamps, foot-pedaled showers, and what Morris calls ”butt wobblers.” ”In some cases, the machines were not as dramatic as Alan wanted them to be, and you had to make a thing shake more by yourself,” says Broderick. ”I bruised my feet on the treadmill. They used metal rollers I had to run on with an oxygen mask, which, ironically, I couldn’t breathe through. I mean, what, and leave show business?”