MOVIES : ON LOCATION : No Monkeying Around : Filmmaker Tony Bill went looking for something original and found it--and a little luck--in a love story called ‘The Baboon Heart’

<i> Rhonda Hillbery is a free-lance writer based in St. Paul, Minn. </i>

On a sweltering May afternoon, a film crew sprays fake snow on the sidewalk in front of Jim’s Coffee Shop and Bakery. Christmas decorations are strung overhead, and an old-fashioned Santa-drinking-Coke billboard looms on the next block.

Cast and crew of “The Baboon Heart” have become regulars at the diner, the principal locale for this tragicomic love story starring Christian Slater, Marisa Tomei and Rosie Perez and directed and produced by Tony Bill.

Jim’s looks like the real thing, all right. Inside is the requisite rounded Formica lunch counter with stools, plenty of stainless steel and 1950s-style plywood paneling, and waitresses in pink uniforms. There’s even a fishing motif in evidence, with mounted catches and black-and-white photos of grinning fishermen on the walls.


Most of this is authentic. In fact, the discovery of Jim’s is one of the reasons this MGM film is being shot in Minneapolis rather than in Chicago or Pittsburgh, Pa.

“When we walked in we said, ‘This is it.’ I mean, it just had the feeling we were looking for,” says co-producer Helen Bartlett. Besides, it was large enough to move a camera around inside. “A lot of diners and coffee shops around the country are very small and narrow and long, and a lot of them didn’t have very much personality. This one did.”

Also, spring arrives late in Minnesota, which was important for filming a movie set primarily in winter. A cool, damp spring kept the trees bare well into April.

Finding Jim’s isn’t the only stroke of luck to bless “The Baboon Heart.” Bill’s savvy casting of Tomei and Perez can’t help but pique interest in this small-budget (less than $8 million), small-cast movie, one without any explosions or car chases. Both actresses are enjoying newfound celebrity thanks to the box-office success of Perez’s “White Men Can’t Jump” and the strong showing of Tomei’s “My Cousin Vinny.” Both were released while “Baboon Heart” was in production.

The story revolves around an unlikely romance between Tomei’s character Caroline, a love doormat and career misfit who is a waitress at the diner, and Slater, who plays Adam, a reclusive busboy. Perez plays Caroline’s buddy and fellow waitress, the smart-talking Cindy.

The title refers to a mythical story told to Adam as a sickly child that a baboon in the jungle gave him his heart. The film falls squarely into the genre of the “women’s picture,” a mainstay during the Golden Age of Hollywood, until movies featuring women characters fell out of favor and practically disappeared. Recently “Thelma & Louise” and “Fried Green Tomatoes” have changed all that, persuading movie financiers that there are audiences beyond the adolescent-male market.

Bartlett says she was surprised that it was written by a man. “This is a small picture, one of those little pictures that isn’t possible to get made in Hollywood,” she says. “And the only studio that saw it went for it over a weekend read.”

But it remains to be seen whether “The Baboon Heart” will ride this wave of popularity. Other restaurant romances have produced mixed results; for example, “Frankie & Johnny,” starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, fizzled last fall.

Bill is known for making small, original movies based on scripts bought or optioned outside the studio system on his own dime. “Baboon Heart” is no exception. He also has a knack for showcasing new talent, like Tim Robbins and John Turturro in the 1987 film “Five Corners.”

“I like scripts that are original in concept and execution,” Bill says. “This is a story that didn’t seem a clone or derivative of other movies made already.”

He also likes it that the story embraces a “spectrum of emotional color, from funny to crazy to sad.”

Slater may be the star of “The Baboon Heart,” but Tomei is the lead. Bill fought to hand the movie’s central role to the young actress, a relative unknown before “My Cousin Vinny” opened last winter. Tomei drew rave notices playing Joe Pesci’s wisecracking Brooklyn fiancee.

Bill says he remembered Tomei from her audition for “Five Corners.” He was impressed but thought she was too young for the part. Then he saw an early video of “My Cousin Vinny” and really wanted her as Caroline.

Before “Vinny,” Tomei’s first role of any significance was that of a mobster’s daughter in “Oscar,” the Sylvester Stallone vehicle that bombed. Since “Oscar,” she’s been busy.

“Yeah, well, ‘Oscar’ really broke the ice, and I was chipping away at that ice for some time,” Tomei says in an interview in her Minneapolis hotel room early in “Baboon Heart’s” two-month production schedule.

For her role as Caroline, Tomei worked to master a Minnesota accent and took ice-skating lessons. “How to Talk Minnesotan” by humorist Howard Mohr and “Lake Wobegon Days” by Garrison Keillor sit on a table nearby.

“The Baboon Heart,” Tomei says, is “really about losing your picture of who you’re supposed to be with and allowing yourself to fall in love with, really, the right person who might be right under your nose.” As small and graceful as a dancer, Tomei moves easily across the room, holding an Evian bottle. “I mean, we all get our picture from the movies, and this is about taking a risk, taking a chance and discovering life anew.”

One scene has Caroline bringing some homemade cookies to Adam’s apartment in a red-brick tenement building crisscrossed with wooden fire escapes. Wearing a blue winter parka, she carries an umbrella and a cookie tin.

A huge rocket crane, fan and water truck sit overhead on a bridge. They are supposed to produce rain, but in this take, a rope inadvertently touches a nearby high-tension wire and sizzles. They start over.

As shooting resumes, Caroline approaches Adam’s door, walking quickly. She knocks. “Adam, it’s Caroline. I brought you some cookies I thought you might like. I made them.” Pause. “Did you have a nice Christmas yesterday?”

Adam grunts, opens the tin and takes a bite. It’s dreadful, but he recovers enough to smile before ushering her inside.

Screenwriter Tom Sierchio, watching on a monitor, turns to a crew member. “His expression was great, like he wanted to spit them someplace.”

Rosie Perez sits in a director’s chair, wrapping up an interview with MTV on the grounds of a closed veterans hospital.

In a scene to be shot inside, her character is sleeping at home when Caroline rousts her, looking for a lift. Cindy’s bedroom is a celebration of bad taste. There’s a loud patchwork quilt on the art deco bedroom set, clashing floral drapes, multiple hats hanging on the wall, inflatable plastic toys everywhere, even a pinata.

“Instead of being cool and hip, Cindy’s trying to be, and she’s very tacky,” Perez says in her inimitable Brooklyn way. “She doesn’t have it all together, but she’s fooled everybody. She’s funny, but there’s an element of sadness.”

Perez describes Cindy as the kind of person headed down a dead-end of life but denying it all the way. Her voices rises suddenly. “I like playing Cindy. I don’t like Cindy.”

She walks to her dressing room in a trailer, where two thermal undershirts are laid out. One is white, the other maroon. “They gave me two choices. It’s really cool.” Since she’s supposed to be going to bed, Perez won’t be wearing a bra, and the white shirt would be transparent, revealing more of her anatomy than she cares to share. She picks the maroon.

Perez says she’s uncomfortable with nudity unless it’s necessary: “For me as a person, it’s very hard. I just shudder.” She’s still bothered by the erotic ice-cube scene in “Do the Right Thing,” in which she made her film debut.

Screenwriter Sierchio is also associate producer and stunt coordinator and even has a small acting role in this non-union picture.

He wrote 10 screenplays before getting this one produced, making a living by doing stunt work and even making deliveries for a liquor store.

“I didn’t want to be just a punching bag for hire,” Sierchio explains. “You work one week and then you’re done. I wanted to be involved in the process of making films.”

He was delivered from obscurity when Bill picked up a pile of scripts from the William Morris Agency, looking for fresh material.

“I asked to read some scripts from writers I would otherwise not have known about,” Bill recalls. “The Baboon Heart” was one of them. “The title caught my interest.”

After reading it, Bill showed it to Bartlett, who says she vowed that if he didn’t option it, she would. The story was immediately offered to MGM, which quickly went for it. So within two weeks of Sierchio’s handing the script to his agent, everything gelled. On the screenwriter’s 30th birthday, Bill invited him over with the news that they had a “go” movie.

“I’m spoiled,” Sierchio says, sitting on a folding chair in an empty storefront building cater-cornered from Jim’s that serves as a holding pen for extras. “Tony is a real writer’s director. A lot of writers wouldn’t even be allowed on the set.”

Sierchio, with his dark good looks, white T-shirt and jeans, is a New Jersey native and enthusiast. “Baboon Heart” was set there, but when production shifted to the Midwest, so did the story.

Slater came to director Bill’s mind as a talented actor mostly seen in youth-market movies. “I thought it would be good to use him in something different--a serious, contained role,” Bill says.

Bill sees the movie, due for a winter release, as a symbol of how men and women perceive the world differently.

“Adam is enigmatic in the way most men are to most women,” he says. “They don’t talk enough. In his case he doesn’t talk at all. He’s expressionless. . . . He lives his life totally self-sufficiently. It’s not until he meets a woman who’s willing to admit to needing him that he changes that style of existence and opens himself up.”

The role of Adam is a departure for Slater, a precocious actor who has become a leading teen lust object and respected actor through roles as one of the merry men in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” a sardonic teen disc jockey in “Pump Up the Volume” and a Svengali-like manipulator of high school girls in “Heathers.”

But Adam is clearly not a stud. He’s nonverbal, a loner who grew up in an orphanage. Nobody, including Caroline, really notices him until the day he gets her out of a jam.

His first reading of the script left him scratching his head, Slater acknowledges.

“I didn’t relate to the character,” he says, sitting at a table in his unadorned trailer wearing a muslin busboy’s uniform and shaggy, unwashed hair. He chain-smokes Tareytons, and his Saint Bernard-German shepherd mutt Barney lies in a heap on the floor. “The story didn’t make too much sense to me, frankly.”

After talking it over with Bill, Slater became convinced he was over analyzing.

“There weren’t things about this character that I could easily relate to, because in different roles I’ve had to be very boisterous, unlike this one, which is really the more real me,” he says. “That made it real difficult for me. . . . The first couple weeks of shooting, it was scary for me to have to dig deep down for the way--for things I didn’t think it was OK to show.” Pause. “Yeah, yeah, I think that’s it,” he says with finality.

To prepare for the role of the guy everybody thinks is dim, Slater studied classic performances, like Jack Palance’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” from 1950s television. “It had a really interesting quality to it, in that he was really pure,” Slater says. “It wasn’t like he was dumb or retarded or anything, but he was innocent.”