EMPIRE | November 2000
…and beneath lies, the truth
EMPIRE MEETS MICHELLE PFEIFFER IN VENICE AND CHASES HARRISON FORD AROUND EUROPE TO ASK THE REALLY TOUGH QUESTIONS. FOR STARTERS, WHAT, EXACTLY, LIES BENEATH?
WORDS COLIN KENNEDY
What lies beneath (and over the page) is a suspense thriller. If not exactly a classic of its kind, this story does at least track the rules of the genre; for example, the peaceful scenario building slowly to a tense climax. And naturally, herein you can expect the occasional surprise, a false ending, a twist in the tale, even. But the really critical thing with a suspense thriller is: give nothing away. Information is at a premium.
Let’s set the scene. Robert Zemeckis—call him Bob, everyone else does—had some time to play with. Shooting Cast Away with Tom Hanks, Zemeckis built into the production a four-month hiatus to allow his desert island star to shed 40 lb. Instead of using this down-time to work on his golf handicap, the versatile Zemeckis took the opportunity to have a stab at a genre he had been anxious to attempt for some time: the suspense thriller. The Oscar-winning director, who has previously mastered sci-fi (1997’s Contact), adventure (1984’s Romancing The Stone) and comedy-drama (1994’s Forrest Gump) seized upon a script by actor Clark Gregg called What Lies Beneath, knowing full well that in so doing he would have to confront the not insubstantial ghost of Alfred Hitchcock. “This is the only type of film Hitchcock did,” Zemeckis says. “So every time you do a suspense movie you’re somehow going to be on his ground, and he wrote the language for this type of film.” Although What Lies Beneath pays due homage to Hitch – “The shower ring going ting, ting, ting,” notes Zemeckis. “That’s Psycho, obviously” -the director didn’t let Hitchcock’s spectre get in the way of his own supernatural ambition. “Our script always had the ghost, and of course, Hitchcock never had that, so we weren’t trying to do it exactly the way he would.” What Lies Beneath starts in familiar Hitch territory – a la Rear Window (1954) – before moving towards a horror landscape. “That’s the thing with ghosts,” Zemeckis smiles. “They start off little and get bigger.”
Meanwhile, to play the Spencers – the respectable Vermont couple haunted by the ghost – Zemeckis knew instinctively that he needed major movie stars – especially for husband Norman, a part which in screen time at least is a supporting role.”Going back to Hitchcock,” Zemeckis explains; “I always thought he would have cast the movie this way.” Consequently he sent the script to two people, Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and that was all it took. “Usually you have to do a more elaboratedance to cast stars,” shrugs Zemeckis, “but with these two it was, ‘Bam, bam!’”
“I SPENT WEEKS IN THE BATH. IT WAS AWFUL. I HAD TO SLATHER THIS WHITE PETROLEUM JELLY ALL OVER MY BODY LIKE WE DO ON A BABY’S BEHIND.” MICHELLE PFEIFFER
Bob”s strategy paid dividends. Ford and Pfeiffer may both have been coming off duds—Random Hearts (1999) and The Story Of Us (1999) respectively – but together they still radiated enough box office glow to take What Lies Beneath to $142 million in the US. (Later Empire asks Michelle if there was any pressure to deliver a hit movie. “Well, not now there isn’t,” she beams. “Because I have one! And I’m…phew.”
This brings us bang up-to-date, with What Lies Beneath about to begin its European tour with an out-of-competition screening at the venerable Venice Film Festival. So it is that Empire takes the long boat ride to the exotic Excelsior Hotel in Venice’s Lido resort, where Zemeckis and his two superstars have taken over an entire floor. As an idyllic beginning to a suspense thriller, this is pretty much perfect.
Now, pausing for just a moment, imagine that you have been granted an exclusive audience with Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer and Bob; what do you want to know? More to the point, how much do you want to know? To help you decide, here is Harrison Ford, instructing a rather tremulous Empire how to write the story you, the reader, are currently perusing: “It’s your job to figure how best not to spoil this. Because you’re in the public service as much as I am. You want to give people enough information so they can make an informed choice about whether they want to go and see the movie or not, but I assume that you don’t want to screw it up for them?”
And, a little later, Zemeckis, who spent the entire production panicking about how modern audiences were hip to every possible twist – “Everyone has seen everything”—is stumped by the same subject. “Yeah, it (the movie) is hard to write about. I don’t know. .. I just think, maybe the Internet doesn’t allow for this type of film—maybe films can’t have twist endings. But I think you want to preserve the fun for the general public.”
So, there you go: preserve the fun, don’t screw it up.
“I’M LIKE A FIREMAN. WHEN I GO OUT ON A CALL I WANT TO PUT OUT A BIG FIRE, I DON’T W WANT TO PUT OUT A FIRE IN A DUMPSTER.” HARRISON FOR
Let’s start with a nice surprise: Harrison Ford is a dream. Amongst journalists he has a reputation for being difficult. “If he’s wearing a suit,” one jaded Australian hack tells Empire, “forget about it.” Empire finds the 58 year-old in cowboy mood, relaxed in blue jeans and a cotton shirt. Even when not reading from a script, Ford is in possession of a mesmeric speaking voice: balanced and eloquent, yet bullish and passionate; all laced with a Martini-dry sense of humour. A more articulate advocate of mainstream movie-making would be difficult to find.
To wit: the success Ford enjoys in the relatively supporting role of Norman Sencer prompts Empire to ask him why e doesn’t take more character parts; his—response is typically candid: “I’m a leading man. I didn’t set out to be a leading man, I thought I was going to be a character actor. but then the success of a few films and a lapse in public taste led me to become a leading man and I take advantage of that opportunity. I’m like a fireman, y’know? When I go out on a call, I want to put out a big fire, I don’t want to put out a fire in a dumpster. Not some trash fire. I enjoy the freedom that I have earned to participate in the process, and I enjoy the responsibilities that attend to taking on these bigger roles.”
Since Ford is one of the handful of leading men who can “participate in the Process”, conversation turns to the influence of an actor in the inception of a project, specifically the process that led him to drop out of Steven Soderbergh’s forthcoming Traffic, apparently because he felt the character was “too grim”. Here the tension ratchets up a notch. “That’s not the point,” he bristles. “It’s not about pushing your character to be more positive; acting is not about manufacturing iconography; acting is about storytelling, giving some articulation and shape to the story being told, giving it some cadence, some rhythm, some meaning. Offering your understanding—if you happen to have any.”
“TOM HANKS CAME TO VISIT THE SET AND THE CREW BROUGHT A SCALE OUT…THEY WANTED TO KNOW HOW MUCH HE WAS WEIGHING.” BOB ZEMECKIS
As a matter of fact, Ford pulled out of Traffic simply because it came directly after Random Hearts, another movie where Ford was asked to sport a ‘mask of pain’ for the entire duration. As Harrison himself says, “I thought, ‘Well, y’know, the audience deserves to have a better time with me. From time to time.’”
The audience deserves to have a better time. Can’t say fairer than that.
Upon meeting Michelle Pfeiffer—tousled hair dancing around a simple black polo neck, skittish but girlishly pretty in glasses—it is very difficult not to think of Ally McBeal. Whether or not her husband, David E. Kelley, really did create the highly-strung lawyer by looking across the dining room table, in person Pfeiffer is effortlessly charming and polite; unflappable even when Empire accedes to her request for a spoken-word rendition of Cool Rider, Pfeiffer’s showstopping solo from Grease 2 (1982). “There you go,” she giggles, upon hearing the unforgettable lyrics. “Genius, right?”
Pfeiffer describes her housewife, Claire Spencer, as a more “accessible” Hitchcock heroine, minus the “very cold fragility’” of Tippi Hedren or Janet Leigh. However, when Zemeckis directed Pfeiffer, as he did often—“No, no, now you’re reeeealllly terrified”—Pfeiffer drew inspiration from a more up-to-date source. “I thought about Drew Barrymore in the first Scream (1997)—I mean, ultimately that movie was more funny than scary, but the opening sequence was quite terrifying, and she portrayed terror in a way I’d never seen an actress do. That was the ultimate goal, and the trick was building to that.”
Things were complicated further when towards the climax of the film, Pfeiffer is asked to register complete terror with just her eyes and big toe. 117a- n overflowing bathtub, Claire has to do battle with a plug or she will drown – sure, it sounds silly, but explaining any further will give the game away. The scene meant Pfeiffer, who before the film was known to take two baths a day, had to spend a month in the tub: “I had to slather this white petroleum jelly all over my body before I got into the water—y’know, like we do on a baby’s behind. So the water couldn’t penetrate.’ It was disgusting. Truly, it was weeks I was in there. It was awful.”
Zemeckis, meanwhile, laughs at the memory. “In the script it was about three sentences. She lies in tub, that’s it. But we had, like, six bathroom sets all on this one big stage, so I would be over here shooting angles on Michelle, and the second unit would be in another bathroom with a foot double shooting other things, and then we would move around. And I would say, ‘Try something like this,’ and it would just be shoot, shoot, shoot.” Foot double? Did the foot audition? “Oh yeah,” booms Zemeckis, a man whose dress sense—suit jacket, basketball shoes—is as loud as his voice. “They had to audition. Absolutely.”
The result, by the way, is not only terrifying, but a foot fetishist’s wet dream. “Maybe,” Zemeckis allows. Then, after a pause, he adds brightly, “Yeah, absolutely.”
During the course of our meeting, Michelle Pfeiffer tells Empire that she doesn’t believe in ghosts; is scared of spiders, flying and the press; got spooked once during production when she heard voices in the house—it was just her husband watching sports; and, despite reports to the contrary, is definitely not considering semi-retirement: “That’s just me having a big mouth. I was probably tired the day I said that.”
All of which really only leaves one question…What lies beneath? Pfeiffer looks momentarily baffled. “Lies beneath what?” It’s the title of the movie. “But, it’s too general. What do I think lies beneath the movie?” Perhaps, or the truth, or the surface of things? Now she looks really horrified, “Oh my God, you’re gonna get existential on me all of a sudden at the end of the interview? You need a snappy answer?” She gives Empire a toothsome grin. “We’ll pick up where we left off the next time, okay?” Okay…
That was the false ending. Here is an alternative. By the way, Zemeckis didn’t entirely forget about Tom Hanks and his diet. “Sure, I checked up on him a few times. Matter of fact, Tom came to visit us after we had been shooting for a couple of months, and the crew (What Lies Beneath shared key crew with Cast Away) brought a scale out and took one of the lights and beamed it right on there. They wanted to know how much he was weighing, and to make sure he was holding up his end of the bargain.” He was; Cast Away is due out next year.
That wasn’t it, either—that was just a red herring. Here is the real climax, complete with a twist.
A week later in the sleepy town of Deauville in Normandy, Empire meets up with Harrison Ford again, where he is presenting What Lies Beneath to the 26th Festival Of American Film. Pfeiffer has returned to her family, and Zemeckis is gearing up for the release of his next blockbuster, leaving Ford to shoulder the promotional duties alone—Harrison Solo, if you will. And as Ford has made his way from Italy to France via Germany, there are four questions which have doggedly followed him around Europe. Four subjects unrelated to his current project, all of which have the ability to elicit that famous smirk (if he’s in a good mood). They are all, needless to say, present and correct in Empire’s notebook. So, with no regard at all for journalistic safety (Ford is today in a suit), these are the trials of Harrison Ford, presented in order of exactly how much patience they try.
QUESTION#1 Will there bean Indy4-incorporating the supplementary and often inherent question, aren’t you getting a bit old for all this carry-on?
“I would be happy to do it again and we’re simply waiting for a script that we are enthusiastic about and when we can schedule the time for Steven (Spielberg) and I to get together and make it. I’m very interested in it, so is Steven. Even George (Lucas) is enthusiastic. You may know that M. Night Shyamalan is anxious to write the script, and I hope that a deal can be made, and I can make it in the next couple of years.
As for how long it has been, I know what you’re leading to, and there is no barrier to Indiana Jones growing older. There’s no reason why Indiana Jones can’t be the same age as I am.”
Additional supplementary question, only just now occurring to Empire: Will he still be doing as much stunt work?
“I don’t do stunts. I do running, jumping. I do falling down. I get hit by people and I hit people. A stunt is something that I don’t do. But I do try in the Indiana Jones films to do as much as I possibly can, and even contrive to eliminate the things that I can’t do, because I think the virtue of being able to keep emotional consistency with the audience is much advanced by having them be able to look in your eyes when bad things are happening.” (Empire maintains eye contact throughout, despite the steely stare.)
QUESTION #2 How did he feel when Ridley Scott told Channel43 Blade Runner Night that Deckard was definitely a replicant?
“In fact, my argument with Ridley was that we had agreed that he definitely was not a replicant. I’m not surprised by his comment at all, but I liked less the experience for the fact that we weren’t operating off the same page, or that Ridley had some hidden agenda. I wasn’t a big fan of the film because I play a detective who does no detecting—I open four drawers and look in them. And in the confusion that ensued, Ridley was actually removed by the completion bond people at the studio, and I was contractually obliged to do that ridiculous voiceover.”
For the record, Ford does not prefer the Director’s Cut. “They haven’t put anything in, so it’s still this exercise in design, which I think is spectacular, yet doesn’t move me…at all.” But he holds no beef with Ridley. “I admire his work. We had a bad patch there, and I’m over it.”
QUESTION #3 What did he thinkof Starwars: Episode I The Phantom Menace (1999)?
(long pause, often punctuated, as in his press conference at Deauuille, by a wagging finger) “Be fair. (a sigh) It’s a very different type of movie to the films we made, which depended on the relationships between three or four characters. (deep breath) I see it as groundwork for the other films George is doing now, and understand and appreciate the efforts involved. I also think the actors involved are very good.”
QUESTION #4 Did he feel like lndy when he rescued those girl strapped on a mountain?
(sighs, his eyes roll) “That’s complete bullshit. I didn’t save anyone. I provided transportation for one 20 year-old woman from the side of a mountain to a hospital, and I did that because there’s sort of a bad attitude about helicopters. I own a helicopter, in my backyard in Jackson, Wyoming, and I wanted to offer some public service with it. And it’s also interesting for me to be able to try and fly that kind of mission. There are certain kinds of skills involved in flying that type of mission that I want to acquire and accrue.”
And that’s the twist—you can ask Harrison Ford absolutely anything, just so long as you don’t call him a hero. The man who played Indiana Jones and Han Solo is a consummate craftsman, always interested in acquiring new skills, but he is not, you understand, a hero. That’s acting. Which, by the by, is your spoiler. Had to get one in.