‘The Temp’: Why Things Just Didn’t Work Out : Movies: This anatomy of a box-office failure starts with the end because that’s when the trouble began.


The San Francisco Chronicle movie critic said he’d never seen anything quite like it: a movie that falls apart in the last minute. The audience, he wrote, “groaned, hissed, laughed and yelled things at the screen when the end came. And walking out I heard several references to ‘wasting two hours of my life.’ ”

The Washington Post critic said it appeared the filmmakers couldn’t make up their minds about what sort of movie they wanted to make. The actors appeared baffled too.

And The Times’ Michael Wilmington called it “witless,” “dopey beyond imagining,” “ludicrous beyond belief.”


The movie that has provoked this hostility is Paramount Pictures’ “The Temp,” a yuppie paranoia thriller about a fill-in secretary at a cookie factory--where people are mysteriously getting killed--who goes from being an employee who is too good to be true to being a secretary from hell.

As originally shot by director Tom Holland, the climax showed Peter (Timothy Hutton), a young company executive, inside the bakery fighting for his life with the temp (Lara Flynn Boyle). Hutton’s character is dipped in dough, sent to the sugar room, falls onto a conveyor belt and finds himself heading straight at the “whopper chopper.” They go into the chopper and as he desperately tries to drag himself out, she grabs his leg, the chopper comes down and cuts off her hand. The last we see of the temp, she is sliding toward the cookie oven.

But that climax proved too gruesome for test audiences, so Paramount ordered up a different one. And that’s when all the trouble started.

By the time it was over, several writers had devised alternate climaxes. In some, Boyle’s character (Kris) was the killer. In others, Faye Dunaway’s character (Charlene) was the killer. Sometimes Peter and Kris were fighting on the catwalks. Other times, Charlene and Kris were fighting on the catwalks. Or, Peter and Charlene were fighting on the catwalks.

“Oh, what a mess,” said screenwriter Kevin Falls, whose own ideas for the ending were left out of the film.

On Jan. 18, less than four weeks before it was to open, Paramount was re-shooting the final scene and rushing it into the theaters for the President’s Day holiday weekend.


Some observers say the disappointment of “The Temp” (it has grossed only about $5 million at the box office) can be traced in part to the upheaval that engulfed Paramount last fall with the sudden resignation of studio chief Brandon Tartikoff.

At the same time, there is a widespread belief that by the time Paramount released “The Temp,” the public had simply tired of the genre that had depicted nannies from hell (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”), roommates from hell (“Single White Female”) and mistresses from hell (“Fatal Attraction”).

The film’s plight also revealed the struggle Paramount is having trying to right itself in the aftermath of Tartikoff. Although he had achieved financial success with “Wayne’s World” and “Patriot Games,” his tenure was marked by box-office bombs such as “Cool World” and “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” In the final months, the studio had a woeful lack of product in the pipeline with the result that Paramount had only one movie--Steve Martin’s “Leap of Faith”--ready for release during the lucrative Christmas season.

The final indignity came when no Paramount film earned an Oscar nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Before he left, Tartikoff had approved two possible endings for “The Temp,” but that decision went out the window when producer Sherry Lansing was installed as his replacement.

“Everybody has their personal tastes,” said one person close to the film. “Whenever there is a turnover of management at a studio, one is going to be faced with . . . a lack of consistency in that way.”

No one realizes that more than Falls. Although he received screenplay credit, the ending now on the film isn’t his. He did, however, “six to 10” other endings that weren’t used.

Falls said he had such high hopes for “The Temp” when he wrote the screenplay in 1989. “The Temp” was his first script to reach the screen.

Falls said he takes some blame for the original ending.

“It was too violent,” he admitted. “It was torturous to watch it.”

“Kevin and I had envisioned an ending much more comic,” said producer Tom Engelman, who brought the idea for the movie to Falls. “What we ended up with was a more straight-lined thriller.”

While Engelman and co-producer David Permut were bringing in a second writer to rewrite the climax, Falls went ahead and wrote two other possible endings. His endings included one in which Charlene is the killer and one in which Kris is the killer, but it was “relatively bloodless.”

“I took out the conveyor belt scene,” Falls recalled.

But the new Lansing regime rejected those endings, so the producers asked Nicholas Meyer (“Sommersby”) to take a pass at it.

“I actually liked Nick Meyer’s tag--the last scene of the movie,” Falls said. “Kris gets away with it and she’s not fired. That’s really the way it should have ended.”

What Paramount wound up with, however, was an ending by committee.

Sources said Paramount decided that Hutton’s character had not come far enough, that he should appear more heroic. One reason for the uncertainty of how to end the movie was because the studio wanted something fresh, something unlike other films in that genre.

“In this year of the thriller, (Paramount) felt like audiences had seen this and seen that and you had to start avoiding things, which is obviously a burden when trying to make the right ending,” said one source close to the production.

“No one person should be blamed for what happened,” he added. “The ending is the result of a collaborative effort on the part of the filmmakers, the test audiences and the studio. The studio system, for better or worse, operates by collaboration.”