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ON LOCATION : The Wild Riders : Juliette Lewis and Brad Pitt, a lucky couple off screen, play a hard-luck pair in an unsettling road movie, ‘Kalifornia’

Charles Walston is a writer on the staff of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Early Grayce sports a homemade tattoo on his arm, a crude blue drawing of a heart. But that sentimental gesture has been obliterated by a self-inflicted scar.

Adele Corners looks like a girl who would cause trouble on any seedy street, even if her only crime was a fashion infraction. Skinny legs stretch from her high-heel clogs to her hot pants, and a thin tube top covers her chest. She pops her gum with mindless ease.

Standing outside a run-down gas station beneath a rumbling interstate, Early and Adele are a match made somewhere far short of heaven. The hard-luck couple are two of the principal characters in “Kalifornia,” an unsettling road movie that completed filming last summer near Barstow, after starting in Atlanta. The $9-million project for Propaganda Films is the first feature by director Dominic Seca, who made a reputation as a visual stylist with his television commercials and music videos for such artists as Janet Jackson.

Portraying Early and Adele are Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis, two rising actors who have attracted increasing attention since they filmed “Kalifornia”: Pitt for his role in the bucolic “A River Runs Through It”; Lewis for her part in Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives.”

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Producers hope the couple will boost interest in “Kalifornia,” which will be released in March or April and distributed by Grammercy Pictures, a new joint venture of Polygram and Universal.

In the film, the couple embark on a cross-country trip with another couple who have an academic fascination with violence and squalor. Along the way, the others realize that Early himself is a serial killer.

Pitt and Lewis, who live together, have been romantically involved since they met five years ago while filming “A Time To Die,” a television movie about children who commit violent crimes. On the Atlanta set, they hugged and kissed and sat together quietly on a curb while the crew bustled around them.

“We wanted to do something together and they just happened to offer us both the parts,” said Lewis, 19, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1991 for her supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear.”

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“We just found two characters we liked, that’s what it took,” said Pitt, who played a sweet-talking cowboy rogue in “Thelma & Louise.”

Seca didn’t set out to cast the two. He was looking for someone to play Adele when he saw Lewis in “A Time to Die.” He immediately wanted her for his film, but was dismayed to learn she was already working on “Cape Fear.”

“She was going to be our little discovery,” he recalled during a break on location in Atlanta. “Then the posters for the movie came out and her name wasn’t on them and I thought, ‘No problem, it’s a cameo, a little bitty role, no problem, let’s get her. . . . ' Then the next day I see the movie, she steals the movie, she’s nominated for an Academy Award. . . . “

Seca, continuing his search for Early Grayce, noticed Pitt in “Thelma & Louise.” Pitt’s role in the film, says the director, seemed like “a PG version” of Grayce.

When Seca decided to try to cast Pitt, “I didn’t know they were a couple,” Seca said. “The next day the word came back, ‘We think they’re an item.’ I thought, that’s either great or it’s terrible.”

The actors and Seca say they were drawn to “Kalifornia” by glimmers of humor and vulnerability that offset its dark edge. “It gets you between the corners,” said Seca, who was initially troubled by his reaction to the character of Early Grayce.

“At first it threw me,” Seca said. “When I got to the end of the script (by Tim Metcalfe), I found out that I liked Early Grayce. There were a lot of things about this guy I really liked. He wasn’t like Leatherface, he wasn’t like this dark demonic force that lurks in the alleys. He was a real three-dimensional character with a side to him. I still liked this guy despite the things he does over the course of the story.

“At first that bothered me; I shouldn’t like Early Grayce. But the next morning I said maybe that’s what is really interesting about it. It was that ambivalence that really started to gnaw at me.”

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According to Seca, the film explores the American fascination with violence from the perspective of Brian and Carrie, played by David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes. The characters are two hipsters who flee the confines of academia to document the sites of serial murders across the country. And as luck always seems to have it in the movies, they wind up with a real-live killer and his girlfriend going along for the ride in their ’63 Lincoln convertible.

The physical contrast between the characters sets up the tension: Early in his workman’s clothes and Adele in her trailer park garb, while Brian and Carrie wear denim and black. Carrie smokes Greek cigarettes, and a stylish bob sets off her appearance, which does not go unnoticed by Early. As his desire for Carrie becomes evident, her feelings toward him are more ambivalent.

“It’s a fascination and repulsion,” said Forbes, in her first major film role after spending several years on the soap opera “Guiding Light.”

“On one level you can’t comprehend it, on the other level you’re just saying, ‘What if?’ Your imagination is fueled by something, even if it repulses you,” she said.

“It’s not just a sexual fascination, it’s class fascination, it’s about entering into that dirty world that is alien, but that is intriguing.”

Brian’s interest in Early and his ilk is initially more cerebral. “The character I’m playing makes a 180-degree turn,” Duchovny said. “He travels down from his head to his belly.”

Compared to some blockbuster action pictures, the body count in “Kalifornia” is pretty modest: a handful of corpses spread across the continent. But the movie follows the trend of other “thoughtful” films, such as “Reservoir Dogs,” that seem increasingly concerned with murder and mayhem.

At a time when popular culture, from rap music to movies, is under fire for allegedly glamorizing violence, some critics may charge that “Kalifornia” crosses that line.

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“I think when you say somebody is capable of doing something horrible, it has to be horrible for the viewer,” Seca said. “That’s not to say you need 17 gallons of blood, but I think the act of violence has to be real. It has to be raw and pretty scary.”

Filmmakers cannot ignore the possibility that their work could spur violence, according to “Kalifornia” producer Steve Golin. “This movie is entertainment, it’s not really making a statement,” he said. “But the thing is, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I agree with Dan Quayle in the sense that I think it’s irresponsible to promote violence. I would hope we wouldn’t do that.”

Although “Kalifornia” acknowledges the queasy appeal that violence holds for many people, Golin said it is less violent than many action films such as the popular “Lethal Weapon 3.”

“You have supposedly good guys accumulating a big body count,” he said. “We’re setting those guys up as role models. You have to think about it. We try to make stuff that’s socially conscious. But this is the entertainment business.”

The way Pitt sees it, there is an unsettling trend toward more gore in many scripts today.

“In a lot of the scripts I’m getting, it’s senseless,” he said. “You know, you got cutting off fingers, you got ramming bottles wherever, just for the sake of it. It has nothing to do with the scene or the people.

“It’s this new wave of scripts I’ve seen, it’s like, ‘How much farther can we go?’ You remember in ‘Gone With the Wind’ they made a big deal out of ‘damn’? I don’t mind if it’s for the story, if it is an honest chain of events, but overall I just see a lot of it as unnecessary.”

Pitt sees Early as a person who happens to kill, rather than being an impersonal killer: “You know when you see a litter of puppies, and within a week or two they all have their own personality? . . . Everyone has a code of morals they live their life by.

“I’m not condoning what he does. We’re talking about a guy who doesn’t have options. College? Start a business? These are not practical thoughts.”

Early’s choices might be limited, but not so Pitt, who has stayed busy since “Thelma & Louise.” He was featured in last summer’s “Cool World” and plays the title role in “Johnny Suede,” which won the best picture award at the 1991 Locarno Film Festival. He then completed Robert Redford’s project, “A River Runs Through It.”

Lewis has been busy too, since her scene-stealing role as a sexually awakening girl in “Cape Fear.”

She was cast as a co-ed temptress in Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives,” which was still cloaked in the secrecy typical of his projects at the time when “Kalifornia” was being filmed.

Sitting in a trailer in her redneck princess attire, talking about making a movie with her boyfriend, Lewis sounded like a love-struck teen-ager one second, and like a savvy show business survivor the next.

The couple hadn’t worked together since they started dating, and she was thrilled to be doing so.

“Oh yeah, ‘cause we get to see each other, sometimes during the take, if we have a scene together, or right after the take. We’re like at the point in love , where we just like to see each other every single day and we don’t get bored with each other, so it’s really, really nice. Also we get to be around each other when we’re working and . . . talk and collaborate.

“We met on a movie of the week and started dating when it was over. . . . I already liked him as an actor, plus you gotta respect somebody who’s in the same field as you.

“We want to work together again and again and again. . . . You have to have patience, and then so much respect for the other person. That’s why it’s good to do a movie now ‘cause we’re totally ready.”

Lewis has been acting since age 12, and was legally emancipated at 15 with the support of her parents. Her precocious career made her part in “Cape Fear” a natural, she said.

“The childhood years are mainly from like 2 to 11 or 12, and then you get into that weird teen-age thing which is, ‘Are they kid or are they adult?’ That’s the thing about that role, I know it like the back of my hand. It was great working with (Robert) De Niro and (Martin) Scorsese and stuff, but the role was not that. . . . acting is pretty challenging but certain roles are just like, not always that challenging.”

Pitt agreed the work on “Kalifornia” was rewarding. “You do a scene and then go over and grab the one you love,” he said. “You want to keep your careers your careers and your love your love, but we just wanted to do it more for a vacation.”

The project has not been a total Love Boat cruise, however. The production was beset by rainy weather in Georgia, grueling days in the California desert and a jolt from the 7.5 earthquake on June 28. The cast and crew were on location 45 miles from the epicenter when it hit, Golin said.

“They freaked. Cranes and lights . . . the place just started rocking. It lasted about 10 minutes, the road was waving like the deck of a boat in a storm. Dom had to be the first one to go back in.”

The producer has fretted over what he calls Seca’s “ruthless” perfectionism. Despite 11 rewrites of Metcalfe’s original script by Seca and others, the filmmakers were still trying to come up with the right ending for the movie in the final weeks of shooting.

Golin also admitted he was worried about doing a movie in which two of the principal actors had a real-life relationship. “If they weren’t getting along, it could be a problem,” he said. “But all four of them have been so pro, I’ve been impressed. They have been working ridiculous hours under conditions that are not star-like. The hotels in the desert are not luxurious; they get a room with a swamp cooler, they don’t even have air conditioning. It’s a rough show.”


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