To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar
Starring Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, Patrick Swayze.
Directed By Beeban Kidron
The day he found out that Steven Spielberg and the Walt Disney Co. were locked in a bidding war for his debut screenplay, you could have knocked Douglas Carter Beane over with a feather boa.
''They do know it's about drag queens, right?'' Beane asked his agent. ''They don't think it's about dragons or something?''
No mistake. Both parties were so impressed with Beane's dialogue that the asking price for Wong Foo, a sentimental comedy about three cross-dressers whose road trip to Hollywood derails in rural Nebraska, quickly spiked to around $500,000. That's when Beane, who'd been babysitting to make his rent, decided the fortune cookie was big enough. He signed with Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. ''They easily could've gone to a million, but at those prices, things get ugly,'' says the scribe. ''The studio wants to fire you and get a name for rewrites. I didn't want this to turn into Waterproof-Makeup World.''
Things got ugly anyway when every eligible male in Hollywood came clamoring to wear the slippers of the film's three divas. James Spader, Robert Sean Leonard, Stephen Dorff, and John Cusack were among the suitors who tested for the roles in drag. ''Most candidates acted it marvelously but just didn't look good as women on a huge screen,'' says director Kidron (Used People).
Snipes and Leguizamo passed muster handsomely er, beautifully. But when it came to casting mother-of-all-wig-wearers Vida Boheme, it seemed the fat lady would never sing. Robin Williams tried a makeup test but conceded he was ''not pretty enough.'' (He has a drag-free cameo.) Scores more, including drag artists, got the cold-cream shoulder. Then Swayze showed up. ''I had to battle to get seen,'' he says. ''They couldn't imagine this body in a dress. I've got these Swayze forearms.'' Come again, girlfriend? ''Popeye forearms. And big hands. I had to hide 'em. That's why most of the time in the movie I'm in sleeves or in gloves.''
Unfortunately, no amount of primping could hide the actors' heavy beards. On the hot Nebraska locations, mid-morning sweat and stubble conspired to make the ladies look more like Bud Light wannabes than drop-dead dolls. And as twice-a-day depilatory duties helped stretch the shoot's 50 scheduled days to more than 80 (the budget grew to $25 million), Kidron did some stretching of her own: By the time Wong Foo entered its fourth month, Kidron was in her ninth month of pregnancy. ''It's a miracle I was able to finish it myself,'' she sighs. Miracle indeed: The day after filming wrapped in Nebraska, Kidron went into labor and gave birth to a son, Noah.
Buzz: Judging from rapturous test screenings held in California's conservative Orange County, this road flick could show its legs all season long.
Starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Directed By David Fincher
Three days into 1995, the Sexiest Man Alive smashed into a windshield. Brad Pitt was shooting a chase scene on the L.A. set of Seven when he slipped on the rain-slicked hood of a car, rammed into the glass, and severed a tendon in his hand, requiring an emergency ward visit and several stitches. ''I'm not going to tell you what I said,'' cracks producer Arnold Kopelson (The Fugitive). ''Some expletive.'' Although Pitt returned to the set in a few days, Kopelson had a right to worry. As he got closer to making Seven, a tale of two detectives tracking a serial killer who slays his victims according to the seven deadly sins, Pitt went from being the cute guy who seduced Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise to the cute guy who seduced half of America with Interview With the Vampire and Legends of the Fall. Suddenly, the flaxen-haired stud-muffin from Missouri had become a star and Seven was supposed to be Kopelson's lucky number.
But getting Pitt to play crop-topped, gung ho rookie detective David Mills amounted to more than a stroke of luck. ''We had lots of discussions of his character before we had him locked into the movie,'' says Kopelson. ''It was not just an actor taking a job because we're paying him a lot of money.'' Indeed Pitt, famously finicky with screenplays, had rejected a score of offers before banking on Seven a $30 million movie that could bolster his thespian cred but baffle his teenybopper fans. ''It's a dark and moody film,'' says Freeman, who plays lonesome, burned-out sleuth William Somerset. ''There's a very serious mood to it, dark and dank and rainy and somber.''
It's a mood born of reality. Now 30, Andrew Kevin Walker wrote Seven four years ago while manning the counter at Tower Records and living in New York City, where he saw a veritable parade of sins every day on his way home from work. ''It was a depressing time for me,'' the writer admits. Although Seven takes place in a bleak, nameless metropolis, its Gotham gloom resonated with Kopelson. The producer snatched the screenplay away from Penta, a financially strapped Italian company, and brought it to New Line. After director Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon) bowed out, Alien 3's Fincher, best known for Nike commercials and Madonna videos, signed on and instantly won the writer's heart. ''One of the first things he said,'' Walker recalls, ''was that he wanted to go back to the first draft.'' Oh, one minor change: On screen, you'll see Pitt's character sporting a cast on his arm after a clash with the villain. ''He wasn't supposed to break his arm, but that's what we've done,'' says Kopelson. ''We worked his injury into the story line.''
Buzz: Bloody. Good.
Starring Mekhi Phifer, Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo.
Directed By Spike Lee.
When Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro opted to make Casino instead of this urban drama, Universal was in a jam. The studio had reportedly paid Richard Price $1.9 million to adapt his 599-page novel about cops and dope dealers for the director-star duo and didn't want to dump it. So Universal offered it to Spike Lee, with Scorsese staying on as producer. ''I was hesitant at first,'' admits Lee. ''I'm sick and tired of this whole hip-hop gangsta black shoot-'em-up drug film genre. This had to be good enough so that maybe it would be the final nail in the coffin.'' Recalls Price: ''When Spike took over, he said to me he only directs what he writes. I said, 'Good luck!''' Lee's primary alteration was to downplay Rocco Klein, the cop role intended for De Niro and eventually taken by Keitel, in favor of Strike, a crack lord's teenage employee played by 20-year-old newcomer Phifer. ''I wanted to tell Strike's story,'' says Lee. ''That stuff with Rocco going through a midlife crisis we got rid of that s---. We've seen that stuff in cop movies before.'' But Clockers' most compelling character may be Rodney, a paternal drug kingpin played by Crooklyn's Lindo. ''I really wanted to present somebody who wasn't a stereotypical bad guy,'' says Lindo. ''The horror of a man like Rodney is that he has a very genuine attraction for the kids.'' Clockers could do for Lindo what Lee's Jungle Fever did for Samuel L. Jackson. ''Right now, Sam Jackson is Hollywood's boy,'' laughs Lee. ''When Sam cools off, maybe it'll be Delroy's turn.''
Buzz: May be too grim to be a breakout hit, but Lindo does give a star-making performance.
Devil in a Blue Dress
Starring Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore, Don Cheadle.
Directed By Carl Franklin.
Franklin (One False Move) was all too aware of the potential for novelist-versus-screenwriter spats when executive producer Jonathan Demme contacted him about adapting and directing Walter Mosley's 1990 novel, in which amateur sleuth Easy Rawlins (Washington) finds himself embroiled in a political and racial scandal in 1948 Los Angeles. ''I called Walter whenever there was a departure I was making, just to get feedback,'' says Franklin, who altered the plot to focus on a mayoral election. ''Carl and I worked on what we felt was important,'' says Washington, ''We didn't have the luxury of 200 or 300 pages to explain everything.'' One omission Mosley's fans are sure to notice is the romance torrid on the page, nonexistent on the screen between Easy and the elusive Daphne (Beals). That loss didn't bother Beals, though; she was just relieved to have the part. ''I had to jump through hoops, each progressively smaller and burning brighter and more furiously,'' she says of Franklin's resistance to cast a known actress as the femme fatale with a secret (we're not telling). ''In total arrogance, I said to Carl, 'You're not going to find her, because you're talking to her.''' Casting was easy compared with shooting. ''Nothing from Los Angeles in 1948 was saved,'' says Franklin, who re-created South Central L.A. from scratch. ''We paid a lot for security because we were shooting in neighborhoods that, let's just say, weren't the best.'' Maybe he should hold on to those sets: Franklin, Washington, and TriStar have optioned the rights to two more Easy Rawlins novels.
Buzz: Denzel's cool cat Easy may be the star, but look for his trigger-happy friend Mouse (Picket Fences' Cheadle) to steal the show.