Before Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a critically acclaimed cult TV show, it was a little-loved teen comedy starring the guy from Beverly Hills 90210. There was a lot of buzz about the quirky movie prior to its release. A lot of people thought the combination of then-hot Luke Perry and Joss Whedon’s script could make Buffy a sleeper hit of the summer. The August 1992 issue of Movieline included a warts-and-all look at the making of the movie that would eventually be best remembered for the TV show it inspired.
Luke Perry, stripped to the waist, ambles bleary-eyed out of a trailer that stands a stone’s throw from the warehouse-cum-sound-stage where he–idol of teen zillions–is shooting his third flick. Lazily rubbing his stomach and hitching his prom-style serge trousers, he spots me and shoots out a mildly abashed grin. Then he pauses. The “Beverly Hills, 90210” sensation and I haven’t met yet, and we aren’t actually scheduled to talk–one may speak to Luke only by appointment– for a few hours.
Looking for a second as if he might break protocol and introduce himself like any other guy, Perry is saved by the bell when he gets beckoned back into his trailer by a makeup artist.
Passing scores of young extras dressed in prom duds as I continue toward the set, I think of the legions of Perry groupies who might gladly pledge their firstborn to glimpse such an unguarded moment in the life of their love god. To me, Luke Perry just seems like a slim, pleasantly cocky, heavily made-up guy. Worshipers who rhapsodize on everything from his neo James Dean-isms to his sideburns–a trademark he has shed for the movie–might argue that I way underestimate him. But then, I’m way past puberty, and Perry hardly appeared in the two episodes I’ve caught of his Fox network show. And, most of all, I’ve worked this beat long enough to have seen more than one young actor be anointed “the new James Dean” and wind up doing guest shots on “Murder, She Wrote.”
Just now, Perry is co-starring in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a candy-colored $9 million romp half-jokingly described by one of his coworkers as How Luke Perry Spent His Spring Series Break. That’s right, co-starring. What Hollywood learned from Terminal Bliss, the movie Perry made before skyrocketing to instant pop culture notoriety as the other Dylan, is that his name didn’t automatically sell movie tickets. So Perry turned down leads in other movies to play instead a supporting role in Buffy, a movie that he would have to neither carry nor sell. The presence of such brand names as Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland and Paul Reubens, the ex-Pee-wee Herman, should help distribute the weight. Still, from day one of its eight-week shoot, Perry’s presence has raised expectations for the movie. One night, for instance, 200 Luke-o-maniacs clamoring for their idol threatened to disrupt shooting. According to associates, Perry confessed “total embarrassment” that Hauer and Sutherland would think they were making a movie not with an actor, but with Frankie Avalon.
Now, with only hours to go before the shooting ends, Fox executives, who are “ecstatic” about the dailies, according to co-producer Howard Rosenman (Father of the Bride), are supposedly tearing pages out of the script. Amid the casualties of time and budget were hoped-for vampire cameos by David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Cary Elwes. But why, Perry aside, has a little movie like this generated such hubbub?
Producer Rosenman maintains that Fox chairman Joe Roth, after pronouncing the script “a slam dunk,” put Buffy on the production fast track to guarantee it would open nationwide in the slot occupied last summer by Fox’s goofball hit Hot Shots! “It’s a kid’s movie that Fox wanted made quickly,” explains director Fran Rubel Kuzui, “so that they could release it on the crest of interest in screen vampires that includes Innocent Blood and Coppola’s Dracula.” Kuzui adds, however, “It isn’t a vampire movie, but a pop culture comedy about what people think about vampires. These vampires have seen too many vampire movies.”
Considering that Fox’s only other prayer this season is the budget-bursting Alien3, the studio is betting heavily that Buffy can sneak in and slay the competition. While insisting he feels no pressure to make Fox’s summer, Rosenman asserts, “What we have here is a hip, inexpensive movie on which the studio could make a killing. It’s like Wayne’s World meets Heathers meets ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ meets The Lost Boys meets a Bruce Lee movie.” Will blockbuster-hungry audiences groove to a so-dumb-it’s-smart comedy in which teens battle bloodsuckers with kung fu, Perrier and hair spray? Kristy Swanson, the straight-talker who plays heroine Buffy, shrugs: “For all I know, it could be really hilarious, or it could really suck.”
On a set dressed for the “Hemery High” prom, with politically correct rain forest foliage and banners that read “Hug the World,” director Kuzui is trying for hilarity in a scene involving Perry and Swanson. The co-stars, who, Swanson says, have “hung together” since meeting last October at a Super Bowl party, make a groovy-looking duo. He’s sprawled on the floor in a pearl-colored silk shirt, green brocade vest and those slick serge trousers. She stomps in and straddles him, looking like a punk Evita in a white poofy dress, matching Dr. Martens and a black leather jacket.
“Yeah, do that ‘Sting’ walk, like you’re on a mission,” Perry says, cracking up Swanson (who later explains that Perry was referring to the singular way she stormed from her car the night she feared she, Perry and a group of friends were going to be late for a Sting concert). The scene Swanson and Perry are doing is a simple one that kids Perry’s macho image and sounds a subtle feminist note that builds through the movie: Swanson finds Perry regaining consciousness long after she has single-handedly karate-chopped and torched a horde of vampires into oblivion. Or, as Perry later explains to me, “I’m the damsel in distress in this movie, which I love. I’m serious about my work, but it’s so much fun, after nine months of making Dylan as dangerous and problematic as I can, to come here and fall on your ass and make everybody laugh.”
Kuzui, who last directed the sweetly quirky Tokyo Pop, crouches over her stars, affectionately nudging the toe of Perry’s clodhoppers, making encouraging noises.
Meanwhile, in the recesses of the stage, Hauer and Reubens, (whom one crew member calls “the unlikeliest Mutt and Jeff”) stand in their street clothes watching. At the other side of the set, Perry and Swanson’s agents maintain as low a profile as any two Creative Artists Agency powerbrokers can. Hovering, more visibly anxious, is Kaz Kuzui, the director’s husband and Buffy‘s co-producer, who notes to me, “Luke Perry’s name means nothing in Japanese markets or overseas, so we needed to make certain we had international names.” But if Perry and Swanson are feeling the pressure, you’d never guess it by watching. As their 40-ish director tells me during a break, “Like Tokyo Pop, this is a movie I’m making as if I were 24. I’m trying to do rock and roll here. Making movies is such a good excuse to be a kid.”
After several run-throughs, the actors pop back up and get fussed over by the hair and makeup team. Perry catches sight of his non-Dylan self in a mirror and says, “Who’s that? I feel naked without my sideburns.” Later, improvising a white boy’s shuffle to the James Brown sound bites spewing out of a crew member’s toy tape player, Perry suggests, “How ’bout we just pump it?” when Kuzui demands more fine-tuning of the scene at hand. “How ’bout we just rehearse it, Luke?” she shoots back.
With the action blocked to her liking, Kuzui wraps the scene after a few takes. As her young, loose-limbed crew regroups for a new setup, she observes, “We’re up to our ears in cultural icons around here, but then, Buffy is very much about pop culture, so …” Her voice trails off and she laughs, fiddling with one of her hip, dangly earrings. Then, anticipating my question, she adds, “There have been times when Luke kidded around too much or something, and I would just scream, ‘Hey, Luke, you don’t want to be the star in this movie? Then, shut up and don’t act like one,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, sorry.’ He’s really wonderful, and a gentleman. Believe me, he was not the problem on this movie.”
Perry feigns exasperation when I bring up his director’s observations about him. “That Jap-ewish woman! What, she got pissed because I’d be talking on my cellular phone on the set? Here’s how it went down: I’d say, ‘Fran wait a minute, my agent’s on the phone,’ and she’d say, ‘Luke stop,’ and I’d go, ‘Agent? Bye.’ ”
One night Robert Downey Jr. showed up on the set and, on meeting Perry, said, “So, you’re the man in town now, the guy?” Perry, a hardcore Downey fan, recounts how his idol let him get puffed up with praise for a split second, then swatted him down with: “Get over it.” Slouching, Perry shrugs, turns serious and admits, “That was so funny, so cool.” And Perry also admits, “Fran did have to pull me back into it. There have been so many things going on in my personal and professional life during the shooting that my attention was kind of split. I think it served me because, after ‘Beverly Hills, 90210,’ this is a warmdown, you know, where you get loose and shake things off. I didn’t feel I needed to prove anything here, so I didn’t over-think the role. Elvis Presley said, ‘An image is a hell of a thing to live up to; I’m just a human being.’ And me? I’m just a skinny kid from Ohio doing the best I can.”
In a town where spoiled, insecure actors can wreak havoc on a set, and where the flames of development hell burn eternally, Buffy has in fact coalesced with surprising ease. The project began gathering steam last fall, when producer Rosenman “flipped over this weirdly funny script by a 25-year-old with red hair flowing down to his ass.” Joss Whedon, a “Roseanne” contributor who has since chopped his flowing locks, imitates to perfection Rosenman’s gravely, schmoozy excitation for his screenplay: “I looooooove it, doll, and I’m going to get it on.” Whedon and his agents let the producer of Shining Through and Straight Talk shop the material, but almost every moviemaker in town spurned it, including Fox, where Sandollar, the Dolly Parton and Sandy Gallin-owned company which Rosenman heads, has a first-look deal. Improvising, Rosenman set about trying to raise $6 million from foreign investors for an independent co-production with Sandollar. Enter Kaz and Fran Kuzui, whose L.A.-based distribution company has brought such off-center films as Bagdad Cafe, Wild at Heart and Barton Fink to Japan.
Rosenman had earlier had a “disastrous” first meeting with Fran. “Fran was either an hour early or late and I had a manicure appointment,” the producer recalls. “So I asked her, ‘Do you mind if I have my manicure while we talk?’ She said no, 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 cliched, high-handed movie executive. Which I may have been.” Nevertheless, he ended up taking Buffy to Kuzui Enterprises. (Kaz Kuzui is the nephew, by the way, of one of Japan’s most influential movie distributors during the ’60s and ’70s.) Fran Kuzui resonated to the script and asked Whedon to create a woman sidekick character for the vampire king.
She also made Buffy “more lovable” and encouraged the screenwriter’s resolve to write the character as a “strong, seminal, idiosyncratic female heroine–something you don’t see much of in horror movies outside of Ripley in Alien.” Then Rosenman got a surprise. “Fran told me, ‘I want to direct this,’ which was a completely unexpected bonus because she’s got a great pop sensibility and also a martial arts bent that she picked up from being around Kaz.”
By the time the partners had hired a line producer, location manager, and casting agent Johanna Ray, the person who found the kids for both “Twin Peaks” and “Beverly Hills, 90210,” they had already spent over half a million dollars out of pocket. Casting agent Ray brought in Kristy Swanson, who had Mannequin Two: On the Move and Hot Shots! on her resume. After three auditions, Swanson got the role. Says director Kuzui, “The day I met Kristy, I understood that Buffy wasn’t just pop and silly. She could also be really cool and tough. It was Kristy’s idea that, while other girls wear sandals, Buffy wears dark Doc Martens–as a way of saying somehow she always knew that she was born to be a slayer. When people see her in this movie, they’ll see: This is a star.”
Next came Perry, who had been slipped the script just about the time Kuzui had finished rewriting it. “I got a call saying, ‘Hey, do you want Luke Perry in your movie?’ and I went: ‘Not like that I don’t,'” recalls Kuzui, who was sent a closetful of Perry press–which she never looked at. “I’d only seen him two or three times, and I didn’t care about watching his TV show. I thought it would be better for him if I were fresh and unaware of Dylan. So, I arranged to meet him for lunch and asked, ‘Is there any place you feel comfortable?’ and he said, ‘Anything you want is fine with me.’ I called friends for suggestions about where I could meet him and they’re like, ‘Luuuuuuuke Perry,’ but I’m like: ‘I’d rather die than be caught in public anywhere with Luke Perry.’ I decided on the Mondrian, a low-key place, and on the way I thought I’d buy People magazine, figuring I’d have something to read if he was late. I’ve since learned that there are weeks of Luke-mania, then there are regular weeks. He was on People‘s cover. I just stood there going, ‘Oh, shit,’ and the last thing I wanted to do was walk into the dining room with a copy of a magazine with him on the cover.”
During the lunch, Kuzui says, “I made him audition and explain why he wanted to do the part so badly.” She recalls, “I liked him a lot and he had good ideas about the character. I told him I would think about it and he walked me out to my car very sweetly and solicitously and said, ‘I really want this part,’ like he really, really wanted it. I knew I wanted to work with him.”
Still, there were stalls. Perry wanted to make certain that the cast was weighty enough so that the movie wouldn’t be sold on his name. But perhaps the biggest complicating factor was whether or not Perry would get a studio green light on The Lane Frost Story, his true story pet project, in which he wanted to co-star with Robin Wright, about a world champion bull-rider dealt freak success and an early death. Neither the bosses at Fox, with whom he has a two-movie deal, nor any of the studio bosses to whom he tells me he went personally, would go for it.
“I learned I’m not bankable at the box office,” he says. “I’m no one’s first choice for a part. I’m behind 15 other guys, if I’m thought of at all. I died when this project went into turnaround. You can only hear ‘No’ about your child so many times, and I want to give birth to this. It killed me even more than auditioning twice for Coppola for The Godfather, Part III and not getting that. What he [Coppola] didn’t know was that there was no feeling in my fucking right finger, because if he had asked me to cut it off and leave it on his desk, I would have, just to be on his set.”
In the meantime, Hauer officially committed for the part of Lothos, King of the Undead, and Donald Sutherland signed to play Merrick, a spiritual being who trains Buffy in the art of slaying vampires. With this, they next brought Buffy to Fox Senior Vice-President of Acquisitions and Production John Ruscin and Senior Vice-President of Production Susan Cartsonis. Although the studio had earlier turned down the package, screenwriter Whedon says, “Now that it had Luke Perry, the script was brilliant. I’d like to think they actually read the script before they got so excited about it.”
But the Kuzuis–one studio executive calls them “the flying Kuzuis”are in themselves a formidable team. “Fran and Kaz go into meetings with the big guys,” says a film executive who has known the couple for years, “and you watch these guys practically rubbing their palms together going, ‘Oh, boy. A foreigner and a woman we’ll take them to the cleaners.’ Fran and Kaz walk out of those meetings having blown the big guns right out of the water.” When the ripples died down, Fox had committed to half the budget, now $9 million, in exchange for domestic rights. There was one major caveat: Buffy had to be in theaters for school vacation time, which only gave the moviemakers five weeks for preproduction and six weeks to shoot the film. When Kaz Kuzui was unable to secure Japanese money fast enough, Fox decided to pick up worldwide rights in order to get the movie made faster. “It got bigger and bigger in terms of what I was able to do,” says director Kuzui, “but it has the spirit of naivete, of coming, spiritually, from a very different place, as an independent movie.”
The last bit of casting to fall into place was the part of Hauer’s sidekick. Hauer was very anxious to work again with Joan Chen–with whom he’d made The Blood of Heroes–but she pulled out and Fran Kuzui had a brainstorm. “I’m not an intellectual in my filmmaking,” she explains. “I thought putting together Rutger with Paul Reubens would be like a Ronnie Cutrone painting, you know? Like the kind of graffiti art called ‘attrition’ that mixes together disparate images from pop culture and cartoons to create something else. I told Paul up front, ‘I’m awestruck at the opportunity to work with someone so conceptually heavy-duty.’ I mean, this man created a major pop icon. My offer to him was that he could create his character. He did, and, like Pee-wee Herman, it’s indescribable and hilarious.”
The company did six weeks of night shooting in and around Los Angeles. According to observers, director Kuzui and the kids pretty much got on like blazes. Some of the grownups were another matter. “Donald Sutherland and Rutger Hauer were very difficult,” co-producer Kuzui asserts, “because they thought it was very serious and became very insecure. They tried to make their roles more complex, more emotional. Rutger tried to be the vampire Lestat from Interview With the Vampire. He’s very good, but he depends on a lot of acting gimmicks. Fran said, ‘Depend on your talent.’ ”
The relationship between Swanson and Hauer, the slayer and her demon foe, had its ups and downs. “Our relationship was hot and cold,” Swanson says, going out of her way to praise Hauer, but noting, “he was really trying to screw with me, to get some sort of rise out of me, I guess. He likes to mess with everyone. He’d stare at me with his Rutger Hauer look and it frustrated him because I’d just laugh and say, ‘You’re not scaring me.’ He’d ask me a million questions, like, ‘Tell me, Kristy, how does Buffy see Lothos? What does Lothos mean to you?’ Finally, I said, ‘Look, what does that matter? You take care of your character, I’ll take care of mine and we’ll just leave it at that.’ Later, I felt like such a jerk, because he said, ‘You don’t understand. Whatever Lothos is to Buffy, that’s what I want to be, so you decide who I am.’ And I went, ‘Whoaaa, that’s really cool.’ ”
Things heated up during the filming of a dream sequence in which Swanson ties back her hair with a red ribbon–a symbol of the vampire’s control over her–and moves to her bed where Lothos lies in wait. “I heard the wardrobe people saying, ‘Rutger, you’ve got to put your pants on,’ ” recalls Swanson. “And then I heard him saying, ‘I’m not! I’m not! I want to do the scene like this, in my robe and that’s it–naked!’ My makeup artist and I are looking at each other, going, ‘Holy shit.’ So, we get to the set and Rutger lays on the bed in a black robe that falls open and he’s only wearing black underwear. I’m going, ‘How am I going to deal with this?’ I did one rehearsal like that and he said to me, ‘Kristy, this is your dream, so if there’s anything I can do to make it better …’ and I said, ‘For starters, you can put your pants on.’ And in this tiny voice, he says, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Come on, Rutger,’ and he goes, ‘But I waaaaaaant to.’ And he put his pants on, but it was so wild and funny.”
Hauer apparently tried to shake down his director, too. But Kuzui had her own strategy for dealing with him. “He got frustrated with me,” Kuzui explains, “because he wanted me to tell him what to do. My way of working is to give actors a framework in which to make choices. He’s used to making action movies, but I asked him to react a lot and he got confused. He’s about to direct something himself, and once in a while I would say, ‘Imagine you’re the director here.’ ”
Hauer, looking huge, dour and hilarious in his trailer, admits, “It is very different for me to come into something like this because it’s a supporting role–supporting a lot of young actors.” He lets the “young” hang in the air for just the right number of beats and continues, “You don’t work all the time, you don’t participate, you don’t know what’s going on or even what kind of film it is. So, you have to stand on the sidelines and not get too involved because it’s not your film. My thinking was: Vampires have been around for 12 centuries and have all the time in the world. So I wanted to be really slow, deliberate while the kids were really fast. I tried it, but I knew it would be a disaster because the kids aren’t very on the ball. When you’re young at acting, you’re not very fast.” Meanwhile, does Hauer think the movie stands a chance of being any good? He shrugs, leans back in his chair and, after a moment, says, sighing, “I know only that Buffy is pretty strong and Donald was great.”
Great or not, Sutherland, too, came in for knocks from some of his co-workers. “He tested Fran, maybe he didn’t even trust her,” Kaz Kuzui says, “but Fran is very strong.” Screenwriter Whedon, who maintained a constant presence on the set, called the actor “a major pain.” A particular bone of contention was Sutherland’s insistence that his character not die in the movie. “He was an enormous pain in the ass,” Fran Kuzui says, “and so am I. I don’t think I’ll ever learn from any actor as much as he taught me.
He made wonderful, idiosyncratic choices for his character–like rolling around on the ground and flipping in the air, yet never losing his hat, while, at home, he never takes off his shoes. But about his not wanting to die, this is my second movie and it’s, like, his seventieth or eightieth. Joss and I worked hard to figure out what bothered him about his character dying, but he didn’t have an intellectual reason. I said, ‘You know this character better than anyone and if you can find a way to make this happen, I have to listen.'”
I asked Perry how he felt about working with these ultra-experienced heavy weights. He says that although he wound up getting a bear hug and a ring from Sutherland, “I didn’t know from one day to the next whether he hated or loved me.” And he adds, “Your press, your charisma don’t mean shit when the cameras roll and you’re playing a scene with Rutger, Donald or Paul. Especially coming off a hot Fox TV show, I’m very clear on the fact that I can’t let myself be just another pretty face. I’d like to think I met the occasion.”
Paul Reubens, whose Buffy grooming–stringy hair and a goatee–makes him a dead ringer for Nicolas Cage, emerged as the people’s choice on the set. Late in the shooting, when crew members spotted him strolling onto the set in red sunglasses and jeans, they’d loudly announce, Elvis-style, “Mr. Reubens is in the building.” On the final, hectic day of shooting, Reubens distributed his own call sheet–which specified locations, scenes, cast and crew members whose services were required for that day. His parody version reads: “Parting of the Red Sea. One hundred thousand extras. If time permits. Reminder: if time permits.”
Indeed, time permitted only so much. “Our schedule prevented me from getting my star vampire cameos,” says director Kuzui, “but I did get in Miss Kitty, who was in Tokyo Pop, as a transvestite vampire.” Overall, Kuzui claims she learned a lot making Buffy. “I realized that, being a woman, I feared certain things–how the crew would treat me, dealing with actors– when it was actually me who was throwing up the impediments. I remember just after the movie was green-lighted, I was getting into a plane to fly back from Hawaii and, when I looked into the cockpit and saw a woman pilot, I actually had a moment of not knowing whether I wanted to stay on the plane. It’s the same thing for women directors. I’ve been completely in love with my husband for 15 years, and if I didn’t have Kaz, I don’t think I would have the courage it takes to allow yourself to be incredibly vulnerable, which is something you risk when you direct.”
As for Luke Perry, now back to work as the young Dylan, he makes no claims that Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be anything more than a rollicking night at the movies. But will it give his career the goose it needs to pave the way to more nights at the movies? “One of my favorite actors is Wings Hauser,” Perry says by way of an answer.
“Wings is a stud. He excites me as an actor. I could ramble all day on how cool he is and how much I want to work with him. I tried to get them to hire him to play my father on the show, but he was booked. Studios choose not to make movies with him. People tell me, ‘Luke, it will kill you at the box office’ to work with him, but he makes movies, good, bad, whatever he wants to do. Do I want to perpetuate my image and keep the money coming in and keep famous? I’d rather be a good actor who works.”
Stephen Rebello interviewed Sigourney Weaver for our June cover story.
Posted on August 3, 2017, in Movies, Movieline Articles and tagged Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, Rutger Hauer, Luke Perry. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.