'The Script is Ruined, So the Movie is Ruined': Michael Cristofer on The Bonfire of the Vanities at 20

Michael Cristofer is mostly known to recent audiences as the Corn Flakes-eating, conspiracy-plotting Truxton Spangler on the recently cancelled AMC series, Rubicon. What fans of Rubicon may not have realized is that Cristofer is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter who adapted Tom Wolfe's bestselling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities for the screen -- an adaptation, which, 20 years ago this week, became one of the biggest screen disasters of all time.

Directed by Brian De Palma, then near the height of his Hollywood powers, Vanities centers on Wall Street "master of the universe" Sherman McCoy and the scandal that ensues following his and his mistress's hit-and-run accident in the South Bronx. The film had virtually everything going for it: Wolfe's delicious satire of '80s-era greed and class; an A-list filmmaker coming off of a decade that saw him direct Scarface and The Untouchables; a superstar cast -- Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis -- and an award-winning screenwriter in Cristofer. We should have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of Bonfire's release with a special anniversary Blu-Ray, including new interviews with the cast and crew. Instead, pretty much everyone involved in the film would like to forget that it ever happened.

Cristofer -- who admits that he avoided anything to do with the book written on the debacle, Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy -- spoke to Movieline about the 20th anniversary of a film that once had, in Cristofer's words, "one of the best scripts ever written." When asked, simply, what went wrong with the film adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities, this was Cristofer's response:

"Oh, it's a very simple answer: When Brian De Palma and I were working on the script, Warner Brothers agreed that we would do a three-hour film. It was going to be a three-hour epic version of that book. I wrote a script that everyone around Hollywood and New York who read the script said that not only was it the best script that I had ever written, but it was one of the best screenplays ever written. And I say that humbly because it was Brian who really helped me a lot. I mean, we really worked closely on making that script. You know, he's a genius. His IQ is like 160 or something. Really, it was a tough job and I had done a version of it and then Brian came on and then we really, really worked closely together. And he was storyboarding the whole script as we were writing it. I learned more about directing on that film then probably on any other film where I worked as a writer.

"And what happened was two things: Number one, Warner Brothers completely undermined Brian's casting of the picture. I don't remember who all of the people were meant to be. Tom [Hanks] was in, that was OK. But, you know, Bruce Willis, that part was supposed to be played by Michael Caine. There were other casting choices that Warner Brothers totally interfered with, and [the studio] threatened to throw Brian off of the picture if he didn't comply.

"And then, finally, like three weeks or two weeks before we started shooting, they gave us the news that the film had to be two hours. It had to be under two hours. So, what was a really terrific script, and what would have made probably a very good movie, ended up being edited down in the space of 48 hours. I mean, we just cut the sh*t out of the script. And, what happened, because of that, was it took on a kind of broader, cartoon sort of feel that just didn't work. It just didn't work. Because, you know, when you've got something that's filled with detail and you take out all of the detail and make it shorter, it just got broader, broader, broader and broader.

"I think that's what did it: It was 180 pages of script that we had to cut down to like 110. And we didn't have the time to do it. There was no time do it. You know, we didn't have four or five weeks, we had to do it overnight. I've actually never read the book that Salamon wrote, The Devil's Candy. I've actually never read it because I manged to avoid her during the entire shoot. [Laughs] So I know a lot of other stuff went on, but the basic problem, that was it, as far as I was concerned. I look at it now and I realize the script is ruined, so the movie is ruined."


  • SunnydaZe says:

    I have read "Devil's Candy" and the main culprit seems to be that delectable combo of bloated egos and sh*tty filmmaking. I would imagine a brilliant script at 180 pages could still make a decent movie at 110 if the people involved with the filming had been even remotely sane. Oh, and don't forget to blame John Lithgow. Since none of the major players could bring themselves to actually read the Tom Wolfe novel they all listened to the book on tape performed by Mr. Lithgow which was not one of his more subtle moments.

  • Brian says:

    I admire Cristofer for his humility. Not many guys would be humble enough to state that a script he wrote was one of the best scripts ever written. No ego there, no sir.

  • Brian B says:

    So funny that today we get 3 hour movies based on comic books that should be 80 minutes and, 20 years ago, you couldn't make an epic book into an epic movie over 2 hours long.
    It doesn't matter how good the original script was. If you cut a concept by over 30% 2 days before shooting, it's going to suck.

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