Entertainment Weekly | #471 February 12, 1999
By Benjamin Svetkey | Photographs by Norman Jean Roy
The PAIN of bringing ‘THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN’ to the big screen was second only to what MICHELLE PFEIFFER felt playing a mother who’d lost a CHILD
IF THERE’S ONE THING MICHELLE Pfeiffer can’t stand, it’s movies about kidnapped kids. In fact, she bolted out of the 1996 Mel Gibson thriller Ransom after all of 10 minutes. “I physically couldn’t stay in my seat,” she recalls. “I hate movies where the plot hinges on a child in jeopardy.”
And yet here she is, producing and starring in the mother of all missing-children dramas, The Deep End of the Ocean, playing a mom who loses her 3-year-old son in a crowded hotel lobby—and doesn’t get him back for nine years. “There were times during production,” she goes on, “when I said to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? What was I thinking?’ There were scenes that were excruciating to film.”
Actually, the really excruciating part came after filming, in the editing room, where Pfeiffer and director Ulu Grosbard (Georgia, True Confessions) battled over the movie’s ending. But even before that, Ocean—costarring Treat Williams as her husband, Whoopi Goldberg as the gay cop who tries to help her, Jonathan Jackson (General Hospital) as Pfeiffer’s elder son, and Ryan Merriman (Lansky) as her lost-and-found little boy—was having some trouble getting home.
Based on Jacquelyn Mitchard’s 1996 novel, the project was being hotly pursued in Hollywoodeven while the book was still in galleys. Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey (who gave the tome her very first TV endorsement, catapulting it to the top of the best-seller list) were both said to be highly interested. But Pfeiffer and her longtime producing partner, Kate Guinzburg (Dangerous Minds, One Fine Day), pounced first. “Kate sent me the book,” Pfeiffer recalls. “There were times when I couldn’t put it down, and there were times when I had to put it down, just to catch my breath.”
Of course, squeezing Mitchard’s harrowing 400-plus-page novel into a filmable 125-page script had its own perils. A first attempt by Ken Hixon (Inventing the Abbotts) was deemed “too TV movieish, too sentimental,” according to Grosbard, who agreed to sign on to the project only if a new script was commissioned. Former New Yorker film critic Stephen Schiff, who’d just massaged Vladimir Nabokov’s prose into a screenplay for Adrian Lyne’s Loita, got the job. He lopped away much of the book’s middle, jettisoning subplots (like Mom’s extramarital affair) and whittling down characters (making Goldberg’s cop little more than a cameo), but ultimately managed to stick remarkably close to the novel. Mitchard, in fact, was kept regularly apprised of his progress—whether she liked it or not.
“They could send me scripts,” recalls the author, “but I wouldn’t read them. That would be like living with your kid after he’s married.”
“To me, this MOVIE isn’t about a child in JEOPARDY,” says Pfeiffer. “It’s really more about…what is FAMILY?”
Casting the $40 million film was tricky as well. More than 1,800 toddlers and teens auditioned for the part of the lost boy. “It was like a chess game,” says Grosbard. “First we had to find a 12-year-old actor for the second half of the movie, when the kid comes back home. Then we had to find a 3-year-old, who looked like he might grow into the 12-year-old, for the first part of the movie.” A physical resemblance to Pfeiffer helpedJacksonland his part (“He looks so much like me, it made me nervous,” she says). And Williams was Grosbard’s initial choice (“The first time that’s happened in my career,” cracks the actor) for the husband.
There was no debate about who’d play the mom—the producer had very strong opinions on the matter. “To me, this movie isn’t about a child in jeopardy,” explains Pfeiffer, 41, who has two children of her own (Claudia Rose, 5, and John Henry, 4) with TV producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal). “It’s really more about a philosophical question: What is family? Is it genetic? How do we define ourselves as people? When the boy comes back home, he can’t really remember his family. To me, the movie is all about that.”
Being both producer and star has obvious advantages—“If I need to get home to my kids after my 12 hours is up, I get home,” she says—but by all accounts Pfeiffer never pulled rank on the set. “She was absolutely wonderful during shooting,” says Grosbard. “She was open, she was smart, she was fair. She exceeded my expectations.” It was only after filming wrapped, as Grosbard was scoring what he thought was the final cut last summer, that trouble started. Pfeiffer had decided she wanted a new ending—a change the director didn’t think worked—and she ordered a three-day reshoot shortly before the film’s scheduled September release.
“I just wanted it to be the best movie possible,” Pfeiffer says. “So we jiggered around with the ending and played around with the structure.”
Without giving away too much of the plot, the debate centered on whether the boy should stay with his newly found biological family or continue living with his adoptive father (played by John Kapelos), who didn’t know that his misbegotten son had once been kidnapped. We won’t reveal which ending eventually won out, except to say it wasn’t Pfeiffer’s. “It just didn’t work,” she concedes.
The reshooting did cause other problems. It pushed the film off Columbia’s fall 98 schedule and into winter, where it would be competing with the studio’s Stepmom. Ultimately, the film’s release was delayed until March 12. Some of the actors were unhappy about the reshoots as well. “It was tough getting back into the movie after you thought you’d finished shooting,” saysJackson. “I’m really glad they didn’t use them”
“I’m not a sore loser,” says Pfeiffer, whose next movie is the star-studded A Midsummer Night’s Dream in May. “I mean, I might get really mad in the heat of passion, but I get over it pretty quickly. I pull back and get reasonable. The important thing is that in the end, we wound up with the best version of the book.”
Maybe so. But Mel Gibson will be forgiven if he leaves after the first 10 mintues. (Additional reporting by Rebecca ascher-Walsh and Dave Karger)