MOVIES : How to Get a Major Hollywood Studio to Do an AIDS Movie (Finally)

<i> Joseph Gelmis writes about film and video for Newsday. </i>

1) Take a script that’s a courtroom thriller / comedy / love story / medical drama.

2) Add one big-deal director who just one an Oscar--Jonathan Demme.

3) Attach two big-time stars--Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.

That’s the backgroud behind ‘Philadelphia.’ On location with Demme and crew as they attempt to make a document of our times -- and movie history



Denzel Washington looks uncharacteristically nervous. The handsome six-footer, who fearlessly attacked cannons in “Glory” and racists in “Malcolm X,” zigzags his way through a crowded party as cautiously as if he is running a gauntlet of lepers instead of squeezing past friendly revelers.

Following right behind Washington is a Steadi-cam, a gyroscopically stabilized camera carried on a shoulder harness by its inventor, Garrett Brown, fluidly filming the actor’s panicky progress through the throng of costumed guests, this one dressed as a Campbell’s soup can; that one as a Magritte painting; those two as Adam and Eve, wearing little more than fig leaves and smiles. Many of the 75 guests in this loft apartment are homosexuals and they frighten and repel lawyer Joe Miller, the character Washington plays in the upcoming movie “Philadelphia.”

Presiding over this cheerful throng are Tom Hanks, as Miller’s gay client Andrew Beckett, and Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, as his lover, artist Miguel Alvarez. Hanks plays a superstar attorney fired by the most prestigious law firm in this “city of brotherly love” when they discover he has AIDS. He hires Washington, a brilliant personal injury lawyer, to sue his former bosses for discrimination and damages.

Since this may be the mortally ill man’s last party, his homophobic lawyer couldn’t very well refuse his invitation to socialize, not after having spent the day in court demanding justice for him. Lisa Summerour plays Washington’s wife, who doesn’t share his fear and dread of gays. Dressed as a sandwich, she has come to boogie and quickly gets into the spirit of the evening. Washington wears a business suit, grudgingly having made minimal concessions to the need for a costume by stapling sheets of stationery to his tailored pin-stripe jacket and calling it “a lawsuit.”

Hanks and Banderas were originally going to dress as Lucy and Desi, but Hanks came up with an idea director Jonathan Demme liked even better. As the scene is filmed this frigid Friday evening in late January, the pair greet their guests wearing the glamorous dress white uniforms of U.S. Naval officers, and their waiters wear sailor suits. It has turned out to be a provocative touch, since the media that day is full of the flap over the President’s proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military.

But the movie they are shooting has no need to call attention to itself. “Philadelphia” will make news when it opens in the fall. It is a historic event, the first movie by a Hollywood studio to confront AIDS and homophobia.

Made for TriStar Pictures by the Oscar-winning director of “Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia” aims to be both a mass entertainment (comedy, love story, medical drama, courtroom thriller) and a social document about our times. The movie is already generating enthusiasm among AIDS activists. Bruce Flannery, an official of ActionAIDS, a support agency that services 500 people with AIDS in Philadelphia, is exhilarated by the movie-in-the-making: “The script is very good, it’s solid, it’s responsible. And everybody loves Tom Hanks. It’s not like reading a nonfiction article. The film will humanize AIDS, make it real. Maybe things will change now.”


Since the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s, there have been several low-budget independent movies on the subject--"Longtime Companion,” “Parting Glances” and “The Living End,” which received respectable reviews and reached a limited audience.

But the major studios have been treating AIDS with benign neglect. While Hollywood stars and executives have rallied against AIDS by raising funds and public consciousness, no studio has been willing to make a movie about it. Even such top Hollywood players as Barbra Streisand and Francis Ford Coppola have reportedly been unable to get backing for AIDS movies they want to make. Hollywood has increasingly been criticized for lacking the courage of its convictions.

Having succeeded where others have failed in getting studio backing, Demme believes Hollywood’s courage is not the sticking point. In his trailer before shooting the “Philadelphia” party scene, Demme speculates: “I think the stone wall of ‘But how the hell do you do it?’ probably knocked out 90% of the good intentions. And the bottom line on it is that no one wrote a great script. Without a great script, (studios aren’t) going to make a movie on a difficult subject. You’re not going to invest millions of dollars in something which you know in your heart of hearts won’t appeal to a mass audience, just to demonstrate your concern.”

Demme attributes TriStar’s investment in “Philadelphia,” Hanks’ eagerness to play a character some of his fans may perceive as a pariah and Washington’s commitment to portray a comically prejudiced man to one factor: “More than anything, it was the script that was the breakthrough,” Demme says. “Our screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, has done an exceptional job. He’s designed the most awesome array of full-blown, rich, complicated, likable, maddening, fascinating characters that I’ve come across in a long time. We’re not expecting the public to see this film because someone has a terminal illness but because of the density of the human fabric and the delight that comes with that. I think of ‘Terms of Endearment’ as a reference point.”


Hanks plays a witty, smart, sympathetic character whose professional life is in jeopardy at the same time his life is threatened by the disease. To the medical drama of AIDS, the script adds a courtroom thriller. Hanks’ high-powered former employers (led by Jason Robards) claim they fired him for incompetence. Running parallel to that is the personal journey of the attorney played by Washington, who moves from not wanting to know about his client’s sexual preference, or even to shake his hand, to becoming his friend. And in that journey he has to face his own fear and deal with his hang-ups about homosexuals.

The script for “Philadelphia” was conceived in 1988, when a close friend of Demme and his wife, Joanne Howard, confided he had AIDS.

“I started hearing myself say I’d love to do a film that deals somehow with AIDS,” Demme remembers, “because we’ve got to find a cure. A cure is possible. But as long as people with AIDS are held in such contempt by such vast numbers of our society it’s going to be that much longer before a cure is found. This country has to get galvanized around the idea of finding a cure for this illness, and not secretly thinking maybe this isn’t such a bad thing: After all, it’s knocking off a bunch of gays and who needs them? So I contacted Ron Nyswaner, with whom I had worked very successfully in the past.”

Nyswaner, whose screenplays include “Smithereens,” “Mrs. Soffel” and “Gross Anatomy,” met Demme when the director bought a script he wrote when he graduated from Columbia University film school in 1980. Though Demme wasn’t able to get it made, they did “Swing Shift” together in 1984, a low point for Demme. During the next four years, Demme’s career rebounded with such critically acclaimed films as “Stop Making Sense,” “Something Wild,” “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Married to the Mob.”


When Demme invited Nyswaner to lunch in 1988 to discuss doing a movie about AIDS, “I said yes to it, immediately,” Nyswaner recalls. “My nephew had just been diagnosed with AIDS. He was 18 years old. So I said, ‘This is terribly important as subject matter to me.’ Jonathan insisted it had to be an entertaining, funny, dramatic, daring, bold movie.”

It took two years of sending magazine articles back and forth, trading books and talking to their friends and family to find a story that was able to do all of that, that “wasn’t just a disease movie,” Nyswaner says. “Because we know there are wonderful people out there who are suffering and fighting this horrible thing. But, really, who wants to see that?”

Nyswaner came up with the David and Goliath hook of Andrew as a lawyer with AIDS taking the most powerful law firm in Philadelphia to court. And TriStar President Marc Platt, who’d been nurturing the project since he was head of production at Orion Pictures, proposed the character of a straight lawyer to represent the gay hero so the average male moviegoer would have a character with whom he could identify.

“I think the moment the story went BOOM,” Nyswaner says, “was when this character Joe got invented alongside the character Andrew, because Joe brings the general audience in.”


The project was already in an advanced stage of development when some gay militants assailed the purported homophobia of “Silence of the Lambs” in 1991. “Philadelphia,” therefore, should not be interpreted as their mea culpa, Demme and his partner-producer Ed Saxon point out.

And Demme balks at the suggestion that it was winning the Oscar last year that gave him the clout to get this movie made. “If this script had been written independently and submitted to TriStar, or other studios, I’m confident it would have been received with great excitement and sent out to directors that the studio liked, and it would have been made.”

Platt, reached later by phone, agrees. “The script, absolutely, was the decisive factor because the challenge presented by the issues and the subject made the entertainment standards demanded of this script higher than those required of the average movie. So when you put together a terrific story and a gifted filmmaker--with or without the Oscar--whose last picture pushed the boundaries of his potential, and you add an exciting cast, of course you make the movie.”

Platt contends TriStar is not anticipating any special problems in marketing “Philadelphia.” The “complex issues and circumstances only add to the compelling nature of the experience,” he says. “The best advertising for the movie is going to be word of mouth. When people see ‘Philadelphia,’ we think they will embrace it and recommend it to their friends.”


Whether or not TriStar was initially hesitant about putting up the $25 million, as some competitors claim, Demme made it happen. He had commissioned the screenplay. And the Oscar sweep of “Silence of the Lambs” as well as the film’s U.S. box-office gross of $130 million, made whatever Demme wanted to do next attractive to powerbrokers and stars. Indeed, Hanks and Washington didn’t need to be recruited--they volunteered.

As soon as the film got the OK from TriStar last summer, scripts were sent to the major talent agencies. A few weeks later, when Denzel Washington bumped into one of Demme’s executive producers, Gary Goetzman, aboard an airliner, he told him he’d read the script and would like to play Joe Miller. Demme called Washington, even though he had been thinking about casting “someone better known for ‘his comedic whack than his acting chops,’ ” Demme recalls. “And Denzel says, ‘Not many people know this: I am very funny, very funny.’ And I said, ‘I’ll bet you are.’ He came up to my house. (Demme lives in suburban New York.) We sat for an hour. And I said, ‘You’re right. Let’s do it!’ ”

At roughly the same time, Tom Hanks’ agent called and said Hanks had read the script, loved it and would be pleased to be considered a candidate for either of the two leading roles. Demme got together with Hanks. And that was it. “What a great way to cast a movie,” Demme says.

In a trailer parked on the street outside the loft where the party scene is to be shot, Demme introduces a visitor aloud to four men and a woman seated in front of mirrors wearing sheets over their clothes to protect them from makeup. In turn, the people identified only as Kenny, Carl, Tom and Antonio smile and say hi.


Demme settles into a chair for a minute to have a dab of makeup applied. “Thank you, Alan. See that, guys? Feeniiished. Feeniiished. But you guys need hourrrsss. " Everyone laughs. Wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt and gigantic sunglasses, Demme will be making a brief on-screen appearance with his wife as Washington and Summerour enter the party.

Before leaving, Demme scrunches past several chairs to confer with the man named Tom about the accuracy of the setup of intravenous tubes they will be using in a scene the following week. It’s Hanks. Gaunt. And unrecognizable.

“Please don’t describe what you saw,” Demme says, outside the trailer. “It won’t do any harm to describe your shock when you realized you didn’t recognize Tom Hanks sitting there. But for reasons that will become obvious when people see the movie, you don’t want to spoil the effect. We’re not going to release photographs of him in his various looks (during the course of his illness) until the movie opens.”

Demme shot the film almost entirely in the chronological sequence of the scripted events, which allowed Hanks to preserve the emotional continuity of the role and to realistically lose weight as his illness progresses.


By the time of this evening’s party scene in late January, filmed three months after shooting began and just 10 days before principal photography wraps, Hanks has shed 30 pounds from what he weighed when we last saw him, in “A League of Their Own.”

But later on the set, Hanks is a dynamo, the life of the party all night, even when he is off-camera on the loft balcony like a DJ, mike in hand, exhorting the dancers as they do the Madison, a group dance, to “Hit It!” and providing a running commentary, “Looking good!” and “Wiggle those hips!” Hanks makes the dancers laugh, rouses them to authentic party fervor, cheerful shouts and applause.

The party scene is an opportunity for the gregarious Demme to assemble friends and acquaintances and people he wants to meet in a work situation. The guests comprise a broad spectrum of ages, genders, sexual preferences: Among the 75 party guests are Quentin Crisp (as Oscar Wilde); George Stoney, who runs the NYU film school, in a tuxedo; Banderas’ wife, Anna Leza (as Spanish royalty); writer Roy Blount Jr. (as Truman Capote), Ridiculous Theatrical Company actresses Black Eyed Susan (as a flamenco dancer) and Lola Pashilinsky (as a cowgirl), and performance artist Ron Vawter (a sheik), who plays another lawyer in the film. Nyswaner (wearing clerical robes) is also in the party scene with his lover, Alan Amtzis.

Demme wanders around, quietly conferring with crew and actors, leaving people smiling and laughing in his wake.


Despite a week of grueling 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shoots, cast and crew are in an upbeat mood, which is par for a Demme set. Since “Something Wild,” he has surrounded himself with the same familial production nucleus, including cinematographer (Tak Fujimoto), production designer (Kristi Zea), costume designer (Colleen Atwood), editor (Craig McKay), producer (Ed Saxon) and trio of executive producers (Kenneth Utt, Gary Goetzman and Ron Bozman), who handle logistical problems.

Shielded from interference and interruption, Demme creates a congenial atmosphere. Anthony Hopkins told interviewers he had never had as good a time making a movie as he did when he worked on “Silence of the Lambs.” And last March, in accepting her Oscar as best actress, Jodie Foster referred to Demme as “my guru.” Tonight, Hanks calls Demme “Boss Man” and is giving 110% of his energy.

Just before midnight, Demme and his associates pile into a couple of vans for a five-minute trip to a screening room where they bolt a quickie hot-plate meal and watch the previous night’s dailies.

The unedited footage, a handful of intimate moments between Hanks and Banderas at their loft, is startling contrast to the party scene they are filming this evening. The dozen people watching are alternately stone silent and sputtering with laughter as Hanks delivers the same lines with subtly different inflections and gestures in retakes.


The lights come up. Saxon shakes his head. “Tom has been astonishing from day one. We wouldn’t have been surprised if Tom had originally told us, ‘I’ll play that homophobic lawyer,’ you know? ‘You can get some actor who doesn’t really care about the future of his career to play the gay lawyer with AIDS.’ But the truth is that Tom is a great actor who often plays the goofy, lovable guy. Here was a role that he felt he could act the hell out of. And he’s doing it.”

Nyswaner, still wearing his bishop’s robes from the party scene, is sorry there isn’t more to see. “I love the dailies,” he says. “One night you’re on the edge of your seat, the next night you’re laughing, the next you’re crying and sometimes you’re laughing in the midst of your tears. That’s Jonathan. He can do more than one thing at a time. And whatever he’s doing, he always keeps one eye on the truth--what really happens between human beings.

“Sometimes we disagree,” Nyswaner continues. “And I’ve gone around complaining occasionally, because I wasn’t getting my way. But the word on the set, from the hairdresser to the costumer to the cinematographer, is ‘tell him you disagree, then give Jonathan what he wants because he is usually right, Ron.’ And he is. He’s the best. And he’s at the peak of his confidence and of his powers.”

Demme relinquishes power after a hard day’s night on the set. Demme didn’t get home from the party scene until the wee hours this morning, but he’s been up since 9 a.m. with his two kids, Ramona, 5, and Brooklyn, 2. Since shooting began on “Philadelphia” in October, Demme and his family have been living in a rented row house 10 minutes from the set. Howard, an artist, has been painting five hours a day in a rented studio.


Demme answers the doorbell shortly after noon. It is Saturday and the baby-sitter has the weekend off. Howard is out shopping for groceries. The kids are watching a videotape of “Beauty and the Beast” and taking turns leaping off a four-foot stack of couch cushions. Demme warily keeps one eye on them, lest they brain themselves on a hard surface. Ed Saxon, Demme’s friend and partner, stops by to take Ramona to see “Aladdin” (for her, it’s the third time).

When Howard returns, Demme puts Brooklyn to bed for his nap and we eat lunch. Howard is one of the inspirations for the character of the lawyer’s wife, whose acceptance of gays helps him overcome his homophobia. The gay man who confided he had AIDS in 1980, giving Demme the incentive to make a movie about the illness, had been his wife’s closest chum since school days. Talking about the movie became a therapeutic outlet for their shared grief as their friend sickened and died.

Everyone at lunch is groggy from the long night’s shooting and soon Howard excuses herself and goes up to take a nap. Demme plans to nap too, because he has agreed to be part of a panel discussion this evening after a screening of “Cousin Bobby,” his documentary about his cousin, Robert Castle, a Harlem minister. The event is being held at a Philadelphia area church from which Howard’s uncle, who is also a minister, is retiring.

But first, Demme pops a cassette into the VCR and we watch rough cuts of several courtroom scenes including opening addresses to the jury by rival attorneys Denzel Washington and Mary Steenburgen.


Demme confides that there’s a lot of him in the homophobic Denzel Washington character, just as there’s a lot of Nyswaner in the gay Tom Hanks character.

Since they found no easily adaptable research on the subject of homophobia, says Demme, “I had to examine my own feelings. And try to figure out how come I was so scared of gays. Even though I liked a million of them and have never been one to aggressively go against gays at all. But I’ve certainly held the fear and the low-grade scorn in varying degrees over the years.

“So I had to turn inward to try to identify the causes and expression of my homophobia, even as Ron Nyswaner had to go back and sift through various experiences of homophobia he’s encountered in his life. And together, we worked real hard to design a Joe Miller, the straight lawyer, who would be very easy to identify with for everybody. And one who could be the subject of respect and understanding by the audience as they watch him come to terms with his own homophobia through working with a gay man with AIDS.”

Demme believes that by showing Washington as a mix of self-confident pro at work and comically klutzy homophobe in his social life he will be more real, and endearing, to audiences.


“By holding a mirror up to the audience,” says Demme, “we’ve given the audience a chance to see their own--my own--fear and scorn on screen, in such a way that we can have a laugh at ourselves. I think the laughter of identification is going to be a big thing for everybody. The first time when you suddenly know you’re in the same room as someone with AIDS, there are a number of things you may want to do--including leap out the window. And if you shake hands with a person with AIDS you may just want to race off to your doctor. Because you’ve read the literature and heard it all from TV, but now you--you get it by shaking hands? So we’ve got that kind of stuff. And very real.”

The house is quiet as we finish our coffee. But not for long. Brooklyn awakes, crying hard. Howard has given up on her nap, and brings him downstairs. He comes to hug his dad. As Demme bounces his child on his knees, the conversation turns to his hopes for his film.

“I’m hoping that individuals whose lives have yet to be touched personally by AIDS will see the picture and come away from it feeling that through a leap of the imagination they now know someone who has AIDS and they wish that person didn’t have AIDS and they are touched by his plight.

“First and foremost, crassly and honestly, this movie is meant to entertain. It’s meant to provide a very complicated, very energized emotional experience. That’s the goal. If to any extent it can provide a little bit of a bridge toward understanding into zones that we avoid trying to get into, then I will really be happy.”