Spring may be in the air, but it sure smells a lot like summer. Judging from the avalanche of big-budget would-be blockbusters rumbling into theaters over the next few months — Volcano, The Devil’s Own, The Saint, and the rest of the Star Wars trilogy — Hollywood seems to be skipping a season. There’s even a crop of goofy, summery comedies, like Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar and Howard Stern’s Private Parts. Moviegoers accustomed to more adult spring fare shouldn’t lose heart, however. John Singleton’s racially explosive Rosewood, David Lynch’s cerebral Lost Highway, and The Graduate (again!) are here for you. And what better way to sort through the hype and hoopla than with our insider’s guide to the movies about to be sprung.
[Starring] Ving RHAMES, Jon VOIGHT, Don CHEADLE, Elise NEAL, Esther ROLLE
[Director] John SINGLETON
The story of a small black Florida town that became the scene of racial riots and lynchings in 1923 is hardly typical material for a Hollywood epic. So it’s easy to understand why, when producer Jon Peters pitched Singleton’s film to Warner Bros., the studio’s reaction was, Get Star Power. Denzel Washington was among the top choices for the role of Mann, a drifter stirred into facing down the Ku Klux Klan when a false accusation of assault causes the peaceful town to erupt in violence. When scheduling difficulties ruled him out and other actors passed, Pulp Fiction’s Rhames — already in line for a smaller part — won his first major starring role. While Rhames says it took so long to cast him because ”they looked at actors who were more palatable to white audiences,” Singleton defends the studio: ”Warner Bros. usually makes star movies, and I’m not averse to that.” Singleton adds that some of Rhames’ competition bowed out ”because I think they were afraid of it. The people who came to the picture were the ones with the conviction and courage to do it.”
Those characteristics were called upon during the seven months much of the cast and crew spent in Sanford, Fla. Living with the story, which screenwriter Gregory Poirier based on survivor accounts then fleshed out with inventions (including the character Mann), was difficult enough for the actors. In addition, ”the conditions were hard,” says Cheadle, who took over the role Rhames vacated. ”They carved the [sets] out of the woods and swamps. There were water moccasins, our second assistant director got bitten by a snake, it rained, and the roads got washed out…and we were in the deepest South. One actor was in a bar, and when the guy next to him heard that he was making the story of Rosewood, said, ‘What’s wrong with the KKK?”’
Several survivors of Rosewood, who were children when the lynchings occurred, were on the set and relived the desperation that caused many to hide in the swamps, waiting for help. ”I almost felt like I owed it to the survivors and all who passed away to bring the truth to the story,” says Rhames. (Feb. 21)
[WHAT’S AT STAKE] Singleton’s reputation, as he freely admits: ”I feel like this movie marks the maturation of me as a filmmaker. I understand now why people make safe movies. This isn’t one.”
SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW
[Starring] Julia ORMOND, Gabriel BYRNE, Robert LOGGIA, Richard HARRIS, Vanessa REDGRAVE
[Director] Bille AUGUST
You thought Fargo looked cold? Think again. To shoot this big-screen version of Peter Hoeg’s best-selling novel, Danish director Bille August carted his crew to the ice-coated isle of Greenland, which straddles the Arctic Circle. Average temperature: -40[degrees]F — cold enough that it threatened to freeze the batteries in the cameras. ”I did a lot of jumping up and down and huddling in a little hut,” says Ormond. Adds August: ”You learn very quickly to dress right and not to take any risks, because it’s not a game at all. It can be a matter of life and death.”
An icy death, in fact, propels the plot of Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Ormond plays a reclusive Copenhagen scientist investigating the mysterious death of a young boy who has inexplicably fallen from the roof of his apartment building to the snow-covered street below. But Smilla is more than a thrilla. Part of the novel’s power is its internal narrative—a dense psychological portrait of the title character. August (Pelle the Conqueror) went through three screenwriters trying to capture that delicate balance of nail biting and navel gazing. (The third, Primal Fear’s Ann Biderman, “understood the combination,” August says, and wound up penning the final version.) Along the way, August did tweak a few elements of the novel: Smilla’s Danish father, for instance, eventually turned into an American, played by Independence Day’s Loggia.
Meanwhile, Ormond spent months plunging into the role of Smilla, whose roots trace back to Greenland’s Inuit hunters. Ormond interviewed glaciologists; chatted with doctors about the chilly symptoms of hypothermia (“Do you shiver manically?” she explains. “No, you sort of go limp”); and even ate whale with an Inuit woman. “It was chewy,” she reports. “And oddly enough it tastes kind of coconutty.” Does this mean Ormond sought a gritty alternative after the Hollywood glitz of Sabrina? “If your intuition kicks in while reading a script,” she says, “you should go with that. I just look for something that hits me in the stomach.” Which could explain the whale meat. (Feb. 28)
[WHAT’S AT STAKE] After fiascoes like First Knight and The House of the Spirits, respectively, Ormond and August need Smilla to thaw out their careers.