Can a movie that (1) is called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (2) stars Luke Perry, Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland and an unknown starlet and (3) is described as "Wayne's World meets Heathers meets 'Beverly Hills, 90210' meets The Lost Boys" slay 'em at the box office?
Luke Perry, stripped to the waist, ambles bleary-eyed out of a trailer that stands a stone's throw from the warehouse-cum-sound-stage where he--idol of teen zillions--is shooting his third flick. Lazily rubbing his stomach and hitching his prom-style serge trousers, he spots me and shoots out a mildly abashed grin. Then he pauses. The "Beverly Hills, 90210" sensation and I haven't met yet, and we aren't actually scheduled to talk--one may speak to Luke only by appointment-- for a few hours.
Looking for a second as if he might break protocol and introduce himself like any other guy, Perry is saved by the bell when he gets beckoned back into his trailer by a makeup artist.
Passing scores of young extras dressed in prom duds as I continue toward the set, I think of the legions of Perry groupies who might gladly pledge their firstborn to glimpse such an unguarded moment in the life of their love god. To me, Luke Perry just seems like a slim, pleasantly cocky, heavily made-up guy. Worshipers who rhapsodize on everything from his neo James Dean-isms to his sideburns--a trademark he has shed for the movie--might argue that I way underestimate him. But then, I'm way past puberty, and Perry hardly appeared in the two episodes I've caught of his Fox network show. And, most of all, I've worked this beat long enough to have seen more than one young actor be anointed "the new James Dean" and wind up doing guest shots on "Murder, She Wrote."
Just now, Perry is co-starring in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a candy-colored $9 million romp half-jokingly described by one of his coworkers as How Luke Perry Spent His Spring Series Break. That's right, co-starring. What Hollywood learned from Terminal Bliss, the movie Perry made before skyrocketing to instant pop culture notoriety as the other Dylan, is that his name didn't automatically sell movie tickets. So Perry turned down leads in other movies to play instead a supporting role in Buffy, a movie that he would have to neither carry nor sell. The presence of such brand names as Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland and Paul Reubens, the ex-Pee-wee Herman, should help distribute the weight. Still, from day one of its eight-week shoot, Perry's presence has raised expectations for the movie. One night, for instance, 200 Luke-o-maniacs clamoring for their idol threatened to disrupt shooting. According to associates, Perry confessed "total embarrassment" that Hauer and Sutherland would think they were making a movie not with an actor, but with Frankie Avalon.
Now, with only hours to go before the shooting ends, Fox executives, who are "ecstatic" about the dailies, according to co-producer Howard Rosenman (Father of the Bride), are supposedly tearing pages out of the script. Amid the casualties of time and budget were hoped-for vampire cameos by David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Cary Elwes. But why, Perry aside, has a little movie like this generated such hubbub?
Producer Rosenman maintains that Fox chairman Joe Roth, after pronouncing the script "a slam dunk," put Buffy on the production fast track to guarantee it would open nationwide in the slot occupied last summer by Fox's goofball hit Hot Shots! "It's a kid's movie that Fox wanted made quickly," explains director Fran Rubel Kuzui, "so that they could release it on the crest of interest in screen vampires that includes Innocent Blood and Coppola's Dracula." Kuzui adds, however, "It isn't a vampire movie, but a pop culture comedy about what people think about vampires. These vampires have seen too many vampire movies."
Considering that Fox's only other prayer this season is the budget-bursting Alien3, the studio is betting heavily that Buffy can sneak in and slay the competition. While insisting he feels no pressure to make Fox's summer, Rosenman asserts, "What we have here is a hip, inexpensive movie on which the studio could make a killing. It's like Wayne's World meets Heathers meets 'Beverly Hills, 90210' meets The Lost Boys meets a Bruce Lee movie." Will blockbuster-hungry audiences groove to a so-dumb-it's-smart comedy in which teens battle bloodsuckers with kung fu, Perrier and hair spray? Kristy Swanson, the straight-talker who plays heroine Buffy, shrugs: "For all I know, it could be really hilarious, or it could really suck."
On a set dressed for the "Hemery High" prom, with politically correct rain forest foliage and banners that read "Hug the World," director Kuzui is trying for hilarity in a scene involving Perry and Swanson. The co-stars, who, Swanson says, have "hung together" since meeting last October at a Super Bowl party, make a groovy-looking duo. He's sprawled on the floor in a pearl-colored silk shirt, green brocade vest and those slick serge trousers. She stomps in and straddles him, looking like a punk Evita in a white poofy dress, matching Dr. Martens and a black leather jacket.
"Yeah, do that 'Sting' walk, like you're on a mission," Perry says, cracking up Swanson (who later explains that Perry was referring to the singular way she stormed from her car the night she feared she, Perry and a group of friends were going to be late for a Sting concert). The scene Swanson and Perry are doing is a simple one that kids Perry's macho image and sounds a subtle feminist note that builds through the movie: Swanson finds Perry regaining consciousness long after she has single-handedly karate-chopped and torched a horde of vampires into oblivion. Or, as Perry later explains to me, "I'm the damsel in distress in this movie, which I love. I'm serious about my work, but it's so much fun, after nine months of making Dylan as dangerous and problematic as I can, to come here and fall on your ass and make everybody laugh."
Kuzui, who last directed the sweetly quirky Tokyo Pop, crouches over her stars, affectionately nudging the toe of Perry's clodhoppers, making encouraging noises.
Meanwhile, in the recesses of the stage, Hauer and Reubens, (whom one crew member calls "the unlikeliest Mutt and Jeff") stand in their street clothes watching. At the other side of the set, Perry and Swanson's agents maintain as low a profile as any two Creative Artists Agency powerbrokers can. Hovering, more visibly anxious, is Kaz Kuzui, the director's husband and Buffy's co-producer, who notes to me, "Luke Perry's name means nothing in Japanese markets or overseas, so we needed to make certain we had international names." But if Perry and Swanson are feeling the pressure, you'd never guess it by watching. As their 40-ish director tells me during a break, "Like Tokyo Pop, this is a movie I'm making as if I were 24. I'm trying to do rock and roll here. Making movies is such a good excuse to be a kid."
After several run-throughs, the actors pop back up and get fussed over by the hair and makeup team. Perry catches sight of his non-Dylan self in a mirror and says, "Who's that? I feel naked without my sideburns." Later, improvising a white boy's shuffle to the James Brown sound bites spewing out of a crew member's toy tape player, Perry suggests, "How 'bout we just pump it?" when Kuzui demands more fine-tuning of the scene at hand. "How 'bout we just rehearse it, Luke?" she shoots back.
With the action blocked to her liking, Kuzui wraps the scene after a few takes. As her young, loose-limbed crew regroups for a new setup, she observes, "We're up to our ears in cultural icons around here, but then, Buffy is very much about pop culture, so ..." Her voice trails off and she laughs, fiddling with one of her hip, dangly earrings. Then, anticipating my question, she adds, "There have been times when Luke kidded around too much or something, and I would just scream, 'Hey, Luke, you don't want to be the star in this movie? Then, shut up and don't act like one,' and he'd say, 'Oh, sorry.' He's really wonderful, and a gentleman. Believe me, he was not the problem on this movie."
Perry feigns exasperation when I bring up his director's observations about him. "That Jap-ewish woman! What, she got pissed because I'd be talking on my cellular phone on the set? Here's how it went down: I'd say, 'Fran wait a minute, my agent's on the phone,' and she'd say, 'Luke stop,' and I'd go, 'Agent? Bye.' "
One night Robert Downey Jr. showed up on the set and, on meeting Perry, said, "So, you're the man in town now, the guy?" Perry, a hardcore Downey fan, recounts how his idol let him get puffed up with praise for a split second, then swatted him down with: "Get over it." Slouching, Perry shrugs, turns serious and admits, "That was so funny, so cool." And Perry also admits, "Fran did have to pull me back into it. There have been so many things going on in my personal and professional life during the shooting that my attention was kind of split. I think it served me because, after 'Beverly Hills, 90210,' this is a warmdown, you know, where you get loose and shake things off. I didn't feel I needed to prove anything here, so I didn't over-think the role. Elvis Presley said, 'An image is a hell of a thing to live up to; I'm just a human being.' And me? I'm just a skinny kid from Ohio doing the best I can."
In a town where spoiled, insecure actors can wreak havoc on a set, and where the flames of development hell burn eternally, Buffy has in fact coalesced with surprising ease. The project began gathering steam last fall, when producer Rosenman "flipped over this weirdly funny script by a 25-year-old with red hair flowing down to his ass." Joss Whedon, a "Roseanne" contributor who has since chopped his flowing locks, imitates to perfection Rosenman's gravely, schmoozy excitation for his screenplay: "I looooooove it, doll, and I'm going to get it on." Whedon and his agents let the producer of Shining Through and Straight Talk shop the material, but almost every moviemaker in town spurned it, including Fox, where Sandollar, the Dolly Parton and Sandy Gallin-owned company which Rosenman heads, has a first-look deal. Improvising, Rosenman set about trying to raise $6 million from foreign investors for an independent co-production with Sandollar. Enter Kaz and Fran Kuzui, whose L.A.-based distribution company has brought such off-center films as Bagdad Cafe, Wild at Heart and Barton Fink to Japan.
Rosenman had earlier had a "disastrous" first meeting with Fran. "Fran was either an hour early or late and I had a manicure appointment," the producer recalls. "So I asked her, 'Do you mind if I have my manicure while we talk?' She said no, but I later heard through her agent that she thought it was the most loathsome meeting she'd ever had.
She hated me. To her, I must have seemed like the cliched, high-handed movie executive. Which I may have been." Nevertheless, he ended up taking Buffy to Kuzui Enterprises. (Kaz Kuzui is the nephew, by the way, of one of Japan's most influential movie distributors during the '60s and '70s.) Fran Kuzui resonated to the script and asked Whedon to create a woman sidekick character for the vampire king.
She also made Buffy "more lovable" and encouraged the screenwriter's resolve to write the character as a "strong, seminal, idiosyncratic female heroine--something you don't see much of in horror movies outside of Ripley in Alien." Then Rosenman got a surprise. "Fran told me, 'I want to direct this,' which was a completely unexpected bonus because she's got a great pop sensibility and also a martial arts bent that she picked up from being around Kaz."
Pages: 1 2