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The Girl's Got Bite
The Original Unauthorized Guide to Buffy's World, Completely Revised and Updated
By Kathleen Tracy
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Kathleen Tracy
All rights reserved.
BUFFY: FROM FEATURE FILM TO TELEVISION SERIES
Before there was Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sunnydale, there was Kristy Swanson and Los Angeles. But other than the title, the feature film incarnation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is as different from the television series as Tod Browning's Dracula is from George Hamilton's Love at First Bite.
Buffy's evolution from a low-budget feature-film disappointment to one of the most distinctive and stylish television series in recent memory, is reflective of both what's right and what's wrong with working in Hollywood and why it's so important to retain creative control over a project.
It also shows that a good vampire story just won't stay dead and buried.
Buffy Goes to the Movies
When twenty-five-year-old Joss Whedon first got the idea to write his Buffy the Vampire Slayer screenplay, his intention was to create a supernatural heroine whose terrifying encounters were reflective of the anxieties all adolescents experience. "The idea behind Buffy was to take someone who is living a normal life, put them in an abnormal situation, and see if they rise to the occasion," Whedon explains. "My idea of the film was that no matter how ill-equipped someone may appear to be to handle their own life, there comes a time when they must take charge of their fate."
That's the artiste's version. On a more superficial level, Joss just wanted this girl to have a little fun: "Yeah, this movie was my response to all the horror movies I had ever seen where some girl walks into a dark room and gets killed. So I decided to make a movie where a blonde girl walks into a dark room and kicks butt instead."
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon's first screenplay, was optioned in 1988 by Sandollar Productions, the company that was founded by Dolly Parton and her longtime manager, Sandy Gallin. But it wasn't until almost three years later, in 1991, that the script finally passed from the seemingly eternal "development hell" stage to actual pre-production. That's when Sandollar executive, Howard Rosenman, approached the husband-wife team of Kaz and Fran Rubel Kuzui with the script.
Rosenman and his partner, Gail Berman, saw Buffy as a small-budget, offbeat independent film. They hoped Japan-born producer Kaz Kuzui, who, along with his wife, Fran Rubel Kuzui, also owned a distribution company that marketed American independent films in Japan, would produce Buffy and find Japanese investors to finance it.
The Kuzuis had been a producing/directing team since the couple married. Kaz came to America from Japan in 1977 to work as an assistant director on a Toshiro Mifune film, where he met Fran, who was the script supervisor. They married a year later and when she started spending half her time in Japan, she was hit with culture shock. "I didn't know anything about Japan when I met Kaz," she has said. "I hadn't even read Shogun."
Out of her experiences came the screenplay for the 1988 film Tokyo Pop. Although she had no previous directing experience — her background included a master's degree in film from New York University, working as an associate producer at WNET in New York, and as a production manager for PBS — Fran was named the movie's director.
The first meeting between Rosenman and Fran Kuzui didn't go well. "Fran was either an hour early or late and I had a manicure appointment," the producer recalled. "So I asked if she minded if I had my manicure while we talked and she said she didn't. But I later heard through her agent that she thought it was the most loathsome meeting she'd ever had. She hated me. To her, I must have seemed like the clichéd, high-handed movie producer. Which I may have been."
Despite the unfavorable first impression, Buffy did end up at Kuzui Enterprises, and then Fran surprised Rosenman by telling him she wanted to direct the film as well. "The instant I saw the title, I knew this was a film I had to make," Fran enthused. "Five pages into the script and I was hooked. The more I read, the more I was attracted to the world that Joss Whedon had created. Here's a girl, a high school cheerleader, who's suddenly being told she's part of something else.
"I think all of us, when we're kids, know we're part of something, and the process of being an adult is finding the something you're a part of. This is a story about a girl — and it's very important that it's a girl — finding out how powerful she really is."
Once the deal was set, Fran set about changing Joss's script. She says she made Buffy more lovable and asked Whedon to write in a female sidekick for the lead vampire. But the biggest change she made was one of tone, viewing Buffy through a pop-culture prism. "I don't understand that approach," Joss admitted at the time, but as the screenwriter he had no say in the matter. It was now the Kuzuis' picture to reshape as they saw fit.
The cast was a curious mixture, with pop culture of the moment integrated with the respected tried and true. Although early in the film's development former Who's the Boss star Alyssa Milano was briefly attached to the role, the part of Buffy eventually went to twenty-two-year-old Kristy Swanson, who was just coming off two films, Hot Shots! and Mannequin 2.
"There are a lot of blondes and they're either funny or they're tough," Kuzui said. "When Kristy walked in wearing a black leather jacket and chewing gum, I knew I'd found my Slayer. You just look at her and know she could kick some tush. The day I met Kristy, I understood that Buffy wasn't just pop and silly."
Despite her youth, Swanson had thirteen years' acting experience behind her. A native Californian, Kristy was born in the well-heeled community of Mission Viejo near San Diego. By the time she was nine, Kristy had decided her future was as an actress, so when a family friend suggested she get an agent, Swanson sent some Kodak snapshots to the Mary Grady Agency, a well-known talent agency for children and young adults. Mary, whose daughter Lani O'Grady was a regular on Eight Is Enough, took a look at Kristy's pictures and liked what she saw. Within three days, Swanson had signed with Grady and had been cast in her first commercial, one of the more than thirty in which she would eventually appear.
When she was thirteen, Kristy was cast in her first series, Dreamfinders, on the Disney cable channel. With her family still living in Mission Viejo, it meant a three-hour round-trip commute and being tutored while on the set. When the series ended, Swanson returned to school to discover one of the teachers was going to fail her because she hadn't been in class. When her parents couldn't reason with the teacher, they took her out of the school, and, both being teachers themselves, decided to teach her at home, following the local school district curriculum. Kristy "graduated" from high school when she was sixteen.
Although she didn't have to juggle work and school anymore, her age was still a problem and she kept losing roles to older actresses who could work longer hours. So, with her parents' blessings, Swanson filed for emancipation, and, when it was granted, Kristy moved to Hollywood on her own. Within a short time she landed parts in the films Flowers in the Attic and Deadly Friend.
When asked if she regretted missing the high school experience, Swanson was resolute: "I enjoy characters so I learned to study people — family, friends, everybody. That was more important than going to the prom. My sister-in-law, Jyl, was the model for Buffy. I observed her for weeks before shooting because she had that attitude. No professor can teach you that."
Swanson saw the character as someone going through personal growth. "It's not about 'I'm a woman and I can kick anyone's ass.' It's about change and challenging yourself, getting over your fears and taking one step further. She may walk into the dark room, but she's still afraid. Her biggest fear is, 'What are my friends going to think?' Because in the beginning Buffy knows the price of everything and the value of nothing — she's very shallow."
Interestingly, the movie Buffy was given some of the qualities that would later come to be associated with the Cordelia character on the series: She is consumed with shopping and fashion, bent on running the school social scene and is rather self-involved, with, as Swanson put it, "few concerns beyond what is hip and happening."
Luke Perry was cast as Buffy's boyfriend Pike. Perry was then at the height of his Beverly Hills 90210 popularity, and was being touted as the next James Dean because of his brooding, bad boy portrayal of Dylan McKay. His fans were exactly the people the producers wanted to attract. Ironically, Perry hoped the comic elements of the movie would give him some distance from his TV alter ego: "I can do more than stand and squint. I'd like to play character parts. Pike is very sweet, he just doesn't expect a lot from anybody or anything. There is a real role reversal in the movie," he noted. "Buffy's the one who's always having to save him, which is a nice change from the way these movies usually work. If Buffy can be seen as a hero, then I suppose Pike is the damsel in distress."
Perry's heartthrob status nonetheless carried over to the film's production. In an attempt to keep his more aggressive fans from tracking his movements, Luke was listed on the call sheet as "Chet," and when filming scenes at the Fashion Square mall in Sherman Oaks, an upscale area in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, the producers were forced to hire six extra security guards just to keep the young girls away from Perry.
Swanson revealed that Luke tried to downplay the intensity of his popularity by presenting himself as just an average Joe. "The word 'simple' kind of fell into our vocabulary, because he'd always say, 'I'm just a simple guy.' So I called him Mr. Simple. 'Come here, Mr. Simple.'"
He was chagrined by the teen idolness of it all. "On the first day of shooting, about three hundred people showed up, most of them screaming girls. I was so glad Rutger Hauer and Donald Sutherland weren't working that day because I didn't want these two well-respected, well-established actors to walk on the set and think, 'Oh no — we're making a movie with Frankie Avalon.'"
Donald Sutherland, whose film credits range from M*A*S*H to JFK, played the mysterious Merrick, whose job it is to instruct Buffy in the ancient art of vampire Slaying. Although he liked the script very much, the title left him him befuddled. "When I first agreed to this," he recalled, "I couldn't even say the title out loud. When somebody asked me what the name of the movie was I was going to be working on, I wrote it down on a piece of paper. They, in turn, fell on the floor laughing."
Rutger Hauer, the Dutch actor who had gained international fame and acclaim in films like Ladyhawke and Blade Runner, was cast as the vampire Lothos. Among the other credited cast members were a curious collection of actors with pop culture credentials: David Arquette, who at the time was best known for being Rosanna's sister; Natasha Gregson Wagner (Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood's daughter); syndicated columnist Liz Smith; Amanda Anka (Paul Anka's daughter); Sarah Jones (whose father was the Monkees' Davy Jones); and a cameo appearance by American Graffiti star Candy Clark, who played Buffy's inattentive mother.
But the most interesting casting was for the part of Amilyn, Lothos' sadistic sidekick. Originally Joan Chen had been set for the role, but left in a dispute over money. The producers had offered her $45,000 and she wanted more. When she didn't get it, she walked just before filming was scheduled to start. That was when Fran suggested the person she'd really wanted all along — Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens. "I had never said anything because it was such a far-out idea," she explained.
At the time, casting Reubens was a risky choice because it would be his first job since being arrested in an "adult movie" theater and charged with indecent exposure, which had effectively ended his career as a children's show host. Reubens agreed to take the role — for $150,000 — and, for reasons never clearly explained, the producers attempted to keep his involvement in the film a secret. But on March 3, 1992, the industry trade paper Variety reported that "the film's producers and domestic distributor 20th Century Fox and Herman [sic] are all under a contractual press gag not to divulge Pee-wee's involvement until production is completed. Sorry, guys."
And except for the press leaks, it would have been fairly easy to keep Reubens' participation under wraps. Like Perry, Reubens had a code name — Beau Hunkus. But unlike the 90210 star, Paul Reubens was virtually unrecognizable in the film, with rat's-nest hair and a goatee disguising his face. And Pee-wee's distinctive nasal preschool voice was replaced by a menacing snarling one. "We decided Paul would play the evil guy and Rutger would play the scary guy," Fran Kuzui said in an interview. "And there's a distinction because usually what you're scared of is not the real evil.
"The thing that's great about directing a vampire movie is that it lets you create your own world. And talk about someone who creates their own world — Paul is somebody who created one of the most unique and, to me, seriously important pop characters ever. Pee-wee Herman is right up there with Mickey Mouse as far as I'm concerned. So I was really interested in what he could do with a character like Amilyn."
Kaz Kuzui later explained the cast mix as a financial necessity: "Luke Perry's name means nothing in Japanese markets or overseas, so we needed to make certain we had international names." But, as it turned out, the need to find Japanese investors fell by the wayside. On the strength of Joss's script and the cast, 20th Century Fox eventually agreed to pick up the $9 million budget in exchange for worldwide rights — on the condition that the movie would be ready for release in the summer. That meant spending only five weeks on pre-production and six weeks filming.
"It was a kid's movie that Fox wanted made quickly so they could release it on the crest of interest in screen vampires," Kuzui explained. "However, it isn't a vampire movie, but a pop culture comedy about what people think about vampires." Actually, as conceived by Whedon, it was supposed to be a vampire movie as well as a comedy — but by this time, the film had in many ways became completely different from the one Joss had written.
In order to handle the movie's physical demands, prior to filming Swanson had ten days of intensive martial-arts instruction from expert James Lew (Big Trouble in Little China) and Pat Johnson, who had worked on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While filming, Swanson would be coached by the movie's leading stunt coordinator and second unit director, Terry Leonard, whose credits include Romancing the Stone and Apocalypse Now. "They never asked me if I was a fighter but I did have a dance background," Swanson said. "At the end of the film, I had a lot of bruises and sore bones."
Fran Kuzui takes credit for the martial-arts aspect of the film. "I wanted to find some way for Buffy to slay vampires that had nothing to do with killing, since I was not interested in making a violent film. I am a great fan of Chinese martial-arts films which are, for the most part, pretty bloodless affairs. Since Buffy is a vampire Slayer, not a killer, I had the idea that she would rely on the martial arts as much as possible to get the job done."
Filming began on February 20, 1992 — almost four years after Whedon had originally sold the script. The production filmed on location around Los Angeles, including Marshall High School, and on a soundstage built in a converted warehouse located in Santa Monica. What made the nine-week filming schedule particularly difficult was night shooting, which hit twenty-nine consecutive days at one stretch. "The biggest challenge in making this movie was to make it through the night shooting," Swanson said.
"You become a vampire when you shoot a vampire movie," Perry joked.
Excerpted from The Girl's Got Bite by Kathleen Tracy. Copyright © 2003 Kathleen Tracy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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