A ‘Killer’ Memoir
The group was somewhere outside Taos when the drugs began to take hold, Jane Hamsher recalls in “Killer Instinct,” her controversial new memoir of the making of “Natural Born Killers.” Her book, published this week, has kicked Hollywood fax machines into overdrive over the past few months.
A first-time producer only a few years out of USC’s Graduate School of Film, Hamsher found herself in early 1993 in a van with director Oliver Stone, she writes, scouting locations in the New Mexico desert, when one of Stone’s production team started handing out psychedelic mushrooms. Soon many of the occupants of the van were laughing hysterically, at least until they spotted a police roadblock just ahead.
As Hamsher tells it, they hastily pulled into a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot. “Oliver reached around and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, dragging me out of the van and into the KFC,” writes Hamsher, who says she ordered a Pepsi while Stone ducked intoa men’s room.
“When I returned to the parking lot, I looked to the field next door and saw Oliver running back and forth with his suede bomber jacket spread wide to catch the wind,” she writes. “Oh, good, I thought. That’ll throw the cops off.” (For the record, a longtime Stone associate agrees with Hamsher’s portrayal of the incident.)
Chock-full of outrageous firsthand tales, “Killer Instinct” is the publishing industry’s latest attempt to exploit America’s continuing fascination with inside-Hollywood revelations. Sold to Broadway Books by top literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who also represents novelists Jay McInerney and Donna Tartt, the book has been a hot subject of debate long before its publication.
Hamsher describes Hollywood as a world “ruled by short, bald men with too much money and way too much power, who are driven equally by the universal desire to [have sex] and punish women who wouldn’t [sleep with them] on a bet when they were nobodies.” Her book chronicles the chaotic production of “Natural Born Killers,” and is especially unflattering toward Stone and Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the original script before achieving stardom with “Reservoir Dogs.”
* A wine-drenched dinner with Stone and Peter Gabriel, where Stone demonstrated his knowledge of rock music to Gabriel and his teenage daughter by saying he’d always wanted to have sex with Grace Slick.
* Hamsher’s full-page reproduction of a suggestive, crudely scrawled note she says Tarantino sent her at the Venice Film Festival, which reads in part: “You look great with blonde hair. When we sat next to each other at lunch, you wore these great shorts and your leggs [sic] looked so sexy, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them. Were you wearing them for me?”
* A day on the set where Juliette Lewis is so exhausted from nonstop filming that she falls asleep in the middle of a scene. After she is revived, she plays a fight scene so spiritedly that she breaks actor Tom Sizemore’s nose. “She’s awake now,” Stone says when someone suggests that Sizemore receive medical care. “We’re not stopping, let’s go!”
The book has received respectful early reviews, with the Hollywood Reporter praising Hamsher’s “clear sharp voice, its steel charm whetted on the stone heart of Hollywood.” And Hollywood insiders hardly sound shocked by the book’s portrayals of Stone and Tarantino. Both filmmakers have endured a wealth of criticism after their early successes.
To industry insiders, the true surprise is that Hamsher and her producing partner, Don Murphy, had enough chutzpah to write such a bridge-burning book after having produced a grand total of one movie. Producer Art Linson made a dozen films, including such successes as “The Untouchables” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” before recounting his backstage adventures in “A Pound of Flesh.” John Gregory Dunne labored in Hollywood for decades before publishing “Monster,” his account of the making of “Up Close and Personal.”
But Hamsher and Murphy, who are in their early 30s and now producing the upcoming Bryan Singer film, “Apt Pupil,” relish their roles as Hollywood enfant terribles. “If you can’t take Don and me in the book, then you certainly couldn’t take us in person either,” Hamsher explains. “It’s just the way we are. I don’t think we burned any bridges. The people who didn’t like us before aren’t going to dislike us any more because of the book.”
If nothing else, the book offers an intriguing insight into Hollywood power politics. Hamsher and Murphy fought several messy legal battles acquiring the rights to “Natural Born Killers,” which Tarantino had penned as an unknown screenwriter, never intending to direct it himself. At first, every studio turned down the script, put off by its violence. But when Tarantino catapulted to stardom, the script became a hot property. After Stone took control of the film, the young producers found themselves scrambling to retain a degree of influence over the project.
Hamsher says she wrote the book as a cautionary tale, saying it’s the kind of memoir she wishes she’d read when she began her own career. “It’s a way of letting people who want to be in the business know what they’re getting into, of helping them see all the booby-traps being hung from the trees,” she says.
Stone and Tarantino would not comment on the book. But friends and associates of Stone described it as a self-serving account that casts Stone in a negative light and inflates the role Hamsher and Murphy played in the making of the film.
“What bothered me the most was the snide, dismissive tone, as if Jane had disdain for everyone who worked so hard on the film,” says Victor Kempster, Stone’s longtime production designer. “It made you think she was instrumental in making the film, when her role was largely tangential, except for her very real contributions to the music in the film.”
Woody Harrelson, who like many supporters phoned at the behest of Stone’s publicist, said he had not read the book. But the “Natural Born Killers” co-star said he spent very little time with Hamsher.
“It’s hard for me to believe that Jane and Don are talking about how central they were to the movie,” he says. “They were fairly peripheral, once filming started. Most of the crew and actors didn’t even know them that well.”
Despite these complaints, no one has cited any specific inaccuracies. Hamsher says she kept extensive journals during filming, which she relied on when writing the book. “It’s not a tell-all book,” she contends. “There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t tell. I only put in stuff that related to my experiences.”
Kempster confirms this, saying: “There were plenty of more sordid stories she could’ve written. What bothered me wasn’t the accuracy, but the tone.”
Asked about Hamsher’s version of the production team’s drug-enhanced trip through New Mexico, Kempster explained: “People took mushrooms, although I was not one of them. It was a mad ride, and Jane captured the spirit of that quite well.”
Stone’s lawyer, Bob Marshall, who said he read the book, claimed that “some of the book” was inaccurate and taken out of context, but wouldn’t offer specific examples. Asked if he were planning legal action, he responded: “We haven’t decided what, if anything, we’re going to do.”
The Times has obtained a copy of a three-page letter Stone wrote Hamsher and Murphy on June 9, after the director read a galley proof of the book. Stone calls the book “hurtful and insulting,” saying, “You have allowed your rage and need for revenge . . . to thoroughly distort your perception of events.”
Stone says that Marshall and his agents advised him to pay out Hamsher and Murphy’s contract and not involve them in the film. “Instead, I made you as much a part of the process as I could. I cannot tell you the time and energy I spent dealing with the complaints of the department heads about your meddling in their affairs. . . . Any established director would long before have asked you to leave the set. I resisted that.”
Stone seems most upset by Hamsher’s dismissive account of his production team, saying, “When you’ve produced [as many] complex pictures as we have . . . then you might be able to pass judgment on others’ methods. Till then I would have the modesty to keep my mouth shut and my eyes open.”
Hamsher and Murphy say they sent Stone a reply, but have complied with Stone’s request that the exchange remain confidential. “We sent Oliver a copy of the book four months ago, with a letter offering him the opportunity to make changes,” Murphy says. “But instead of calling us, he mass-faxed it and gave copies to all his people who worked on the film. And we immediately got calls, with people saying how accurate Jane’s account was.”
Hamsher says she learned valuable lessons about realpolitik making the film. “We’re a lot savvier and less vulnerable now. You learn that Hollywood is all about the survival of the fittest. For me, the biggest compliment we’ve gotten is from people in the business who say, ‘I recognized that. I’ve seen that. It feels real.’ ”
But do Stone’s friends see this same reality? “To me, the portrait of Oliver is a cartoon,” Kempster says. “Oliver’s personality has many extremes, but the book only focuses on the raucous side of him. He’s a maniac, but he’s a lovable maniac. And that’s the side of him that’s missing in the book.”