MOVIES : ON LOCATION : Name This Movie : Michael J. Fox’s new romantic comedy combines an East Coast sensibility with the spirit of ‘Splash.’ Just don’t call it ‘The Concierge.’
The man on the radio says it’s a gorgeous, cloudless, sun-drenched day all over the greater New York area--except in Southampton. The mid-May morning on Long Island’s East End has come up in glorious slate gray and is dank enough to send you back to bed.
But down on Meadow Lane, where the ocean is just a short drive--with a five iron, maybe--to Shinnecock Bay, there’s a “party” going on. Inside one of the large, ultramodern houses that rise out of the dunes, the “guests” are wearing enough pink and aquamarine to blind you, and more madras than you’ve seen in 30 years. Inside the entryway, a “Calder” dangles in the air; there are “Hockneys” on the walls downstairs; “antediluvian” artifacts hang on the walls above, where the upstairs living room offers a panoramic view of the Atlantic. And right now, out and over the rail that rings the upper floor, “Michael J. Fox” is swinging through the air.
“I’m very good in this scene,” the real Fox says, observing from below. “Watch me.”
We do, but stuntman Charlie Croughwell is having trouble landing the way director Barry Sonnenfeld wants him to. The idea is for the Fox character to come from behind co-star Anthony Higgins, grab hold of the rail, swing out over the crowd below and land facing Higgins, interrupting his conversation with the female lead, Gabrielle Anwar. It’s a tough move, and Croughwell’s trying to figure it out.
“Instead of thinking about it,” Sonnenfeld tells him, “just let your body find its way there.”
“Ah, the Zen of stunting,” says Mark McGann, the assistant director. The crew laughs.
Croughwell does it again, this time perfectly. There’s more laughter, as Sonnenfeld takes a bow.
“Where are my headphones?” he asks no one in particular, as he starts on to the next scene.
“Around your neck,” his wife, Susan, says. And so they are.
“You can’t say he isn’t funny,” Anwar says.
The party scene--the set piece of the film, according to Sonnenfeld--will take about a week to shoot. By then, perhaps, the movie may have a title. Right now, that would seem to be all it’s missing. It’s got Michael J. Fox’ star power, a director coming off a smash hit (“The Addams Family”), Michael Tucker of “L.A. Law,” designer Isaac Mizrahi’s screen debut, a beautiful leading actress and an economic climate custom-made for screwball, romantic comedies.
Fox, fresh from the success of 1991’s “Doc Hollywood,” plays Doug Ireland, concierge of the Bradbury, a luxury Manhattan hotel that’s a composite of the Plaza, the Carlyle and the Pierre (where much of the film will be shot). Doug dreams of owning the world’s finest hotel, on Roosevelt Island in New York’s East River, and thinks he’s found his angel in the very moneyed Christian Hanover, played by Higgins. The married Hanover is having an affair with Andy (Anwar), and assigns Doug to keep her entertained. Doug, of course, is attracted to Andy, and suffers the inevitable conflict between love and commerce.
“It’s vaguely the plot of ‘The Apartment’ with the special sort of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ feel to it,” Sonnenfeld says, “although, of course, we can fall short of either one of those movies.
“Sometimes I’ll have an extra do something weird in the background, and Michael will say, ‘Come on, Barry, whaddya doin’? It’s a date movie. We’re not making art.’ Which, you know, is true.”
“Absolutely,” Fox says. “I mean, we’re doing a scene in New York, and he’s got three Hasidim in a knife fight going on behind me. I’m like, ‘What’s going on? I’m doin’ lines here!’
“I suggested to him,” Fox adds, “and I don’t know if this has ever been done, but string together an actual comprehensible story in the background so that on the third viewing I don’t have to watch the main story. I can watch ‘Manny Gets a Wife’ or something in the background.”
Sonnenfeld, 39, who lives in nearby East Hampton, calls it a romantic comedy; Fox calls it a date movie. The producer, Brian Grazer, calls the film “a fast-paced screwball comedy.” Co-chairman with Ron Howard of Imagine Films, Grazer’s been responsible for a raft of hits, including “Splash,” “Parenthood,” “Kindergarten Cop” and “My Girl,” as well as three summer movies: “Far and Away,” “Housesitter” and the upcoming “Boomerang.” It was Grazer who came up with the idea for the new film.
“I was traveling around on these different movies,” Grazer says from Los Angeles, “and I’d ask these concierges to do all sorts of things, like, ‘Can you land a helicopter on a building and get me right to J.F.K.?’ And they’d go, ‘Well . . . no . . . I don’t know. . . .’ And I’d say, ‘Well, if I give you this much money, can you do it?’ And all of a sudden it would start happening. These guys are like hotel genies. And while they deal on this kind of fantasy level, they also have every kind of street connection imaginable.”
Grazer says that when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he didn’t know what a concierge was, or how to pronounce it, and he figures most people are the same way. And that’s one reason “The Concierge” is out as a title.
“It’s designed to be a whole lot of fun,” he says, acknowledging that he needs to get working on a name for the movie. “And underneath, it all essentially reintroduces you to a value system you probably already know: that the best dreams don’t have any value unless you’ve got someone to share it with. It’s got that spirit. I think ‘Splash’ had that, and ‘Parenthood’ had that. I hope they did anyway.”
“It’s still not quiet on the set!” McGann yells.
“Yeah, kiss off!” Fox responds, or something close, as they begin to rehearse a scene that will set up a series of comedic situations: Moving from the kitchen and down a couple of steps to the living room, Doug explains to Andy, who thinks Hanover is leaving his wife (he’s not), what all these people are doing in Hanover’s house.
“It’s a pre-divorce party,” Doug says. “They’re very popular here in the Hamsters . . . uh, Hamptons.”
The pacing is wrong, the timing is off, and they do it again. And again. And again. For those who don’t make movies for a living--and perhaps for those who do--the tedium of the process never fails to surprise. Or numb.
Fox is followed everywhere by Rick Provenzano and Bron Roylance, who constantly coif the actor’s modified F. Scott Fitzgerald cut. Just as regularly, Fox then runs his fingers through his hair. Anwar, who’s wearing a dress so small and tight she compares it to a “multicolored condom,” has an overcoat on to ward off the cold.
They run through the scene again. “I really liked what you did on that scene,” Sonnenfeld tells Fox.
They do it again.
“That was incredible,” Sonnenfeld says.
They do it again. “That was incredibly good.”
“You realize, of course,” Fox tells him, “the superlatives sort of lose their edge after a while.”
Fox and Sonnenfeld keep the atmosphere loose with ad-libs, though their temperaments couldn’t be more different. Fox is comfortably glib and funny; Sonnenfeld is funny and wrapped tighter than a drum. He told the Los Angeles Times last year that when the Coen brothers hired him as the cinematographer on “Blood Simple,” their first film, “I was so nervous I threw up 17 times.” On the set of “The Addams Family,” he passed out once and lost 30 pounds, not that he didn’t have reasons: His original cinematographer quit, the replacement became seriously ill, and his wife also had serious complications resulting from two miscarriages.
“One of the biggest problems with ‘The Addams Family,’ ” Sonnenfeld says, “was that it kept me away from my wife and children for 22 months. My wife’s divorce agreement specified that she can’t take the children"--Sasha, who just turned 15, and Amy, who’ll be 12 in September--"more than a hundred miles or so from the city. So after ‘The Addams Family,’ I decided that the second film I wanted to do was an urban romantic-comedy set in New York.”
“The Addams Family,” he says, was not an enjoyable experience. “I loved editing it--I love the editing process--but it was not an enjoyable thing. Just look at the nature of it, the big budget, big special effects, 106 shooting days. Every day, the studio (Orion) was close to bankruptcy (the film was sold to Paramount midway through shooting). This is as different as a film could possibly be.”
Sonnenfeld had received many offers after the success of “The Addams Family.” Since he and Fox, who was already signed to the film, are clients of United Talent, the agency brought the script to Sonnenfeld, and he bit.
And what is the budget on this one?
“Between 25 and 30 million,” he says. “They try to keep it private from me so I don’t get nervous.”
Despite their different natures, both director and star operate on the same ethic.
“I like to do all my work before I get to the set,” Fox says. “And I don’t mean last night. I mean before we start shooting--spend time with the director, understand what the story is about. Because when we get here, I can’t approach this like it’s work. I can’t do it. It’s gotta be fun, goofing around and stuff and at a point where we don’t get nuts about it.”
Sonnenfeld certainly comes prepared. The director and highly regarded cinematographer--besides “Blood Simple,” he shot “Raising Arizona” and “Miller’s Crossing” for the Coens, “Big” for Penny Marshall and “Misery” for Rob Reiner--arrived with a list of 87 shots he planned to complete during the week. “That means you have to average 17 shots a day,” he says. “Yesterday, our first day here, we only did seven.”
Sonnenfeld says the Coens were masters of preparation: “We shot-listed everything, storyboarded everything.”
“The other extreme was Penny Marshall,” he says. “Until she was on the set with the actors, discovering what was happening, she couldn’t sort of pre-visualize it. That’s the way she needed to work, and it worked very well for her.”
Money, of course, is the bugaboo. “If you come in under budget, but your film makes $12 million,” he says, “no one’s going to think of you as a hero. ‘The Addams Family’ came in several million over budget, and made $115 million or so. And no one ever mentioned the budget.”
“You can’t really imagine padding around barefoot in the morning in this place, can you?”
Gabrielle Anwar is sitting on the deck outside the living room, not admiring the architecture along Meadow Lane. “Some of them are so ugly,” she says. This is a big--"although I hate that word"--role for the British actress, who made her U.S. debut in “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” and has also completed the upcoming “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remake and “Scent of a Woman” with Al Pacino. She’s enthusiastic about working with Fox and Sonnenfeld on this film, and perhaps a little less wild about filming her first feature in New York. “It’s absolute chaos, isn’t it?”
“It’s a difficult situation,” co-producer Graham Place says of the Manhattan end of the production, “because we’re asking for bridges to be closed, the F.D.R. Drive to be closed. The city wants to appear to be very helpful to us, and encourage filmmaking in New York, but at the same time they have to look after the citizens and the commercial interests.”
Sonnenfeld thinks the city could have been more helpful. “I was willing to abandon the project if it wasn’t going to be a New York film,” he says. “You always read about what they’ve done and how they help, but I haven’t seen that much support.”
Out here in the Hamsters, uh, Hamptons, they have different problems. The house is owned by a real estate broker who’s expected to arrive later in the day. And location manager Neri Tannenbaum knows what’s going to happen.
“I try to scare people,” she says, “but it’s incomprehensible until you see it.”
“Even though Neri explained everything to him,” Place says, “it’s never clear to a homeowner. You can tell them about trucks and lights and 80 people, and they still imagine seven guys and a still camera. When they see it, they’re just shocked.”
Throughout the house, which is jammed with stands and lights and screens and props, extras wander about. Alice Playten, who will forever be haunted by her “marshmallow meatball” commercial, is making a phone call. Carmen, the 61-year-old model who makes jaws drop when she enters a room, is in several scenes. And Sam Fox, 2, son of Michael J. and his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, is in a director’s chair, eating Tic-Tacs.
“I’m nervous,” Fox tells Sonnenfeld. “Sam’s here, and he’s very judgmental.”
He hasn’t seen his son in a couple of days, and has obviously missed him. “You know who this is?” he asks Sam. “This is Barry. He falls down a lot, you’ll like him. Stick around.”
Fox has established himself as a leading man in such films as “Light of Day,” “Bright Lights, Big City” and the three “Back to the Future” movies, to say nothing of his seven years on TV’s “Family Ties.” His career is commercially secure, and he concedes he’s mellowed.
“I feel much less pressure now to say I want to play some heroin-addict sniper,” he says. “It doesn’t drive me as much. So much has changed in my personal life too. I don’t feel driven to seek out Angst . I’m 30 years old, which isn’t old, but I’m not a kid anymore. And you understand you can put the brakes on and enjoy it.”
Plenty of people still see Fox as a kid. He knows this but dismisses it at the same time.
“It’s so unlikely that I do this,” he says. “It’s so unlikely that I’m even here, it’s so unlikely that I would have done ‘Family Ties’ all those years. Every once in a while I sit back and think, ‘I’m a kid from Canada, I’m short, I look young, I don’t have a deep, mellow voice, I don’t have a special insight into the human condition.’ But I do what I do and people like it, and I try to do it better every time. So I don’t even think about that stuff, and everything just keeps rolling on.”
As does the film: As they prepare another shot, Fox calls out, “You know what the real story is? There are Teamsters here fishing without licenses. That’s the real story. You ought to get on it.”