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How One Actor Changed a Movie Before It Even Came Out

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Critics have been raving about Rupert Everett’s scene-stealing chicanery in the new romantic comedy, “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” But the film’s producers already knew they had a great performance on their hands. In fact, the suave, openly gay British actor was such a hit with preview audiences that the filmmakers paid him the ultimate compliment: They went back and beefed up his part.

On paper, Everett is merely the outsider to a romantic triangle, fourth-billed behind Julia Roberts and co-stars Dermot Mulroney and Cameron Diaz. But his tart performance provided so much comic topspin that the “Best Friend” creative team spent several days in April shooting additional footage, including a new ending, much of it designed to bolster Everett’s role as Roberts’ gay confidant.

“Rupert got great numbers on the cards at our preview screenings,” explained Jerry Zucker, who produced the film with screenwriter Ronald Bass. “But you didn’t need to see the cards. You could hear the audience react to him. He got laughs, he got cheers.

“We knew the audience would love Julia Roberts, but it was a pleasant surprise to see how much they liked Rupert too.”

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Filmed in Chicago last summer, the picture casts Roberts and Dermot Mulroney as best friends--and onetime lovers--who’ve made a pact to marry each other if they haven’t found a partner by the time they turn 28. With the deadline fast approaching and Roberts now a distant presence in his life, Mulroney makes his move--impulsively getting engaged to a college-aged rich girl, played by Cameron Diaz. When he announces his engagement, Roberts realizes he’s the guy she’s always wanted.

Recruited to serve as Diaz’s maid of honor, Roberts has only four days to derail the wedding. Her attempts at wreaking havoc are aided by her more recent best friend Everett, who helps concoct many of the film’s outrageous comic moments.

Everett’s character was less developed in Ron Bass’ original script. But after director P.J. Hogan cast Everett, best known for his roles as the Prince of Wales in “The Madness of King George” and as a gay spy-in-the-making in “Another Country,” his comic finesse encouraged the filmmakers to expand his role.

“When we cast Rupert, we were so impressed that we just kept coming up with more scenes for him,” says Bass. “Everyone had a hand in it--P.J., myself, Rupert all wrote stuff, and some of the funniest moments were things Rupert ad-libbed himself.”

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However, the filmmakers still had a nagging problem--the ending of the movie didn’t work. Although Roberts is clearly the star of the film, her character’s duplicitous behavior made some audience members uncomfortable. Should they be rooting for her to steal back her boyfriend? Or were they were hoping she would do the right thing by stepping aside and letting him marry his new love? Or was there an entirely different way to end the film that might satisfy Roberts fans--and remain true to the emotional logic of the storyline?

The filmmakers originally shot an ending where Roberts was seen dancing at the wedding with a new love interest, a man she had just met, in the hopes of providing an upbeat moment, even if she didn’t win back her old boyfriend. But it was evident at the first test-screening that most moviegoers were unhappy with that resolution.

“The cards basically said, ‘Who is this guy that she’s dancing with at the end? What’s she doing with him?”’ recalls Bass. “It was obvious. We were already talking about what to do while the audience was still filling out the cards.”

It was also obvious that regardless of whether Roberts got her man or not--a plot point the filmmakers would prefer to keep a surprise--the movie needed Everett on screen for the final scenes. It was a victory for Bass, who’d initially written Everett into the final scene--albeit only as a voice on the telephone--only to have him cut out before filming began.

“After the test screenings,” recalls Bass, “several people came up and said to me, ‘Don’t say I told you so.’ And I’m still trying not to say it.”

The favorable response to Everett also signals a small step forward for gay characters in Hollywood studio films. In fact, many reviewers have noted that Roberts and Everett have far more crackle ‘n’ fizz than Roberts and Mulroney, the more conventional romantic couple. As Newsweek critic David Ansen put it: “It is the friendship between a straight woman and a gay man that has the nuances and depths of a good marriage.”

As part of the comedy film team that made such hit film parodies as “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” series, Zucker has long been an advocate of test screenings, which offer filmmakers a snapshot of moviegoer reaction to their film. Many filmmakers see research screenings as intrusive--if given a chance to vote, most audiences will vote for a happy ending. But Zucker views the screenings as an opportunity to have a dialogue with moviegoers.

“To me, movies are about communication--I’ve always wanted to please the audience,” he says. “So if you’re trying to get people to laugh or feel an emotion, and they don’t get it, it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because you’re not communicating well enough.”

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After the previews, Zucker, Hogan and Bass hastily constructed a new ending and reworked other scenes to amplify Everett’s role. After getting studio approval and financing, they built a new set on the Sony backlot to duplicate the wedding reception scenes that had been shot on location in Chicago.

Bass did most of the rewrites, with an assist from the film’s leading lady. In the film’s original version, Roberts gives a toast where she reads a poem by Rilke. Zucker and Hogan felt the toast was too abstract, so Bass tried writing some new material.

“Before I’d finished, Jerry [Zucker] called and said, ‘Don’t bother, Julia’s written her own toast.’ And it worked great, because the scene is more about feelings than just words, and Julia got her character’s feelings perfectly.”

The filmmakers say test audiences who saw the revised picture found it more satisfying. “It brought the end of the movie up to the level of the rest of the film,” says Zucker. “You could feel it in the theater, just from the enthusiasm and applause.”

Zucker says that while the film benefits from having crowd favorite Everett back on screen, the ending plays better because it helps people identify more with Roberts’ character.

Audiences “want to know that she’s going to be OK, that she’s grown as a person,” he explains. “And that’s what the preview process does that’s really constructive--it helps you listen to your audience.”

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Star Turn

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Rupert Everett is a man of many talents--and moods. F10


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