Monday, September 13, 2010
Different rules apply when it gets this late at night
By Edward Copeland
In 1983, Martin Scorsese was down. While he was a critical darling, already revered for making some great films before his 40th birthday, the lifelong movie fanatic had earned the right to bigger projects with larger budgets and longer shooting schedules but the audiences didn't come along with the acclaim and the films weren't tearing up the box office. As a result, his longtime dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ, got scuttled by the studio. His passion for filmmaking had reached a breaking point, but then he received a screenplay from producers Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson by a writer named Joseph Minion called Lies, which Minion wrote as his thesis at Columbia. The title eventually became After Hours, and it opened 25 years ago today and may well be the tensest comedy ever made. More importantly, it renewed Scorsese's love of filmmaking.
Actually, my lead fudges the chronology slightly. Robinson and Dunne, both actors who had turned to producing having already made Chilly Scenes of Winter and John Sayles' Baby, It's You (Later, they would produce Once Around and Running on Empty), sent the Lies screenplay to Scorsese before Last Temptation fell apart. Robinson had been given the script by director Dusan Makavejev (The Coca-Cola Kid) while she attended an early year of The Sundance Institute. Makavejev felt the very New York-centric script might be up her alley. Robinson loved it as did Dunne. The two both had past relationships with Scorsese, though Robinson's was more substantial: She played Teresa, Harvey Keitel's secret epileptic girlfriend in Mean Streets. Dunne's link was a bit more tenuous, if not comical: He auditioned for the role of Ellen Burstyn's son in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, even though Dunne was 18 at the time. Scorsese told him he was too old, but was kind enough to give him a reading and talk to him for awhile anyway. The two sent the screenplay to Scorsese but because of Last Temptation, he declined. The producing pair learned of an up-and-coming filmmaker named Tim Burton and offered the movie to him and he accepted. Then Last Temptation fell apart and Scorsese found Minion's script again and called Dunne and Robinson back saying he'd like to make it. This put the producers in a quandary. They didn't want to dump Burton for no good reason, yet how do you say no to Martin Scorsese? They called Burton and told him the truth, that they had offered it to Scorsese first. Burton withdrew gracefully, saying he'd never stand in the way of something that Martin Scorsese wanted to do. The disappointment over the cancellation of his longtime dream project had inspired Scorsese to return to his indie roots — smaller budget, smaller cast, shorter shoot and renewed energy. In the DVD commentary, the director describes it as if he were going back to school. With After Hours, he would earn an A+ and revitalize himself. He'd even take home the directing prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Paul Hackett (Dunne) works as a word processor. When we meet him, he's helping a co-worker (Bronson Pinchot) who can't get the hang of a certain skill. (Before he got stereotyped by his role on TV's Perfect Strangers, Pinchot had small but visible roles in notable films each year from 1983 to 1985: Risky Business, Beverly Hills Cop and here in After Hours.) Paul's tedium isn't restricted to work. At his apartment, he lies in the dark absent-mindedly flipping through channels before deciding to go to a nearby coffee shop, taking the copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer that he is re-reading with him. As he's lost in the novel, a female customer (Rosanna Arquette) says how much she loves that book. It takes a moment for Paul to realize she's speaking to him. A conversation starts and the woman, whose name is Marcy, joins his table and whispers her thoughts about the cashier's odd behavior. For the first time, Paul notices that he appears to be dancing with an invisible partner. Paul asks if she lives nearby, but Marcy says no, she lives in Soho with her sculptress friend Kiki, adding that Kiki makes plaster of paris bagel with cream cheese paperweights that he really should look at. Paul takes her number and the two part ways. Later in his apartment, Paul notices the number and gives Marcy a call. She encourages him to come on by. Hackett glances at his clock and it reads 11:32 p.m. So begins his journey into a bizarre vision of hell, only he doesn't know it yet. He just thinks he might get lucky, but the luck he'll be experiencing is not the good kind.
What attracted Scorsese to Minion's screenplay wasn't just the chance to return to his indie roots with a quintessential New York story, but because its portrait of being trapped in Lower Manhattan as some twisted vision of Hades reminded him of his own personal experiences living in Tribeca. While that area's image of a Bohemian, artistic paradise appeals to many, by the time Scorsese found himself living there, he was a bit older and spoiled by the comforts of life. He didn't feel like climbing five flights of stairs to get to his apartment anymore. He wanted the convenience of an elevator where he could push a button and get to his floor without so much strenuous effort. So, as he admits on the commentary, when late in the film, Paul shares his story with a stranger and says with exasperation, "I just wanted to leave my apartment, maybe meet a nice girl and now I have to die for it!" and Scorsese's giggling response is, "Yes, you have to die for it." Not that Paul does literally.
Paul's journey down the Manhattan version of the River Styx begins with a wild cab ride, zooming through practically empty streets. In the first (and perhaps the stupidest) bad decision of the night, Hackett places the $20 bill he plans to pay the driver with in the cradle on the back of the front seat, even though the window is open and the ride already has reached a ferocious speed that has jerked Paul himself side to side, so he shouldn't be surprised when the wind sweeps into the cab, grabs the currency like the hands of a ghost and whisks it out the window before Paul can catch it. He tries in vain to get the driver to stop, as if he could get out and find the bill even if he did. They reach their destination and Hackett tries to explain what happened to the disbelieving cabbie, but the driver just speeds off pissed, leaving Paul standing in Soho with an empty wallet and some pocket change.
He finds Marcy's building and searches for the correct button to buzz, settling on one with the name Bridges with Franklin below it, remembering that Bridges was the last name of her sculptress roommate. After he buzzes it, a woman sticks her head out of a window above, asking if he's Paul. He answers in the affirmative and she tosses him down her keys.
After Hours marked the first collaboration between Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and the manic cab ride that brings Paul to Soho was shot using only available light, upon Scorsese's insistence. Dunne and Robinson recommended him having worked with the d.p. on Baby, It's You and showing it to Scorsese, who, of course, also was familiar with his incredible string of nearly 20 films in eight years working for Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his native West Germany. Admiring the look of the Ballhaus films he'd seen and his obvious ability to be able to work fast and well, Scorsese decided he'd be the perfect d.p. for the quick shoot of After Hours. Their work together went so well that Ballhaus would later work on six more Scorsese films. One of the earliest shots of After Hours was his most difficult but was, according to Scorsese, the pivotal moment of the entire film: Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) dropping her keys from the window to Paul on the street below.
After Paul ascends all the flights of stairs to the loft apartment that Kiki and Marcy share, he finds only Kiki there, working on a papier-mache sculpture of a man that Paul thinks resembles Edvard Munch's The Scream (though he mistakenly calls it The Shriek). Marcy, it seems, had to run to the pharmacy. Kiki says she's been giving herself a real workout and asks Paul to takeover, assuring him it's easy. He complies, despite being in a dress shirt and tie which soon get messed up. Kiki offers to toss the shirt in the washer so he'll look good for "his big date" and he continues his work on her sculpture. Kiki continues to complain about her shoulder and Paul offers a massage and before he knows it, she's fallen asleep in his lap on the couch when Marcy finally makes her appearance. Paul and Marcy leave the sleeping Kiki and go off to Marcy's bedroom. Marcy first accusingly asks Paul what he did to Kiki, then changes tone and tells him that she feels like something incredible is going to happen. This will prove to be an understatement for Paul and not in a good way. Before they can even get to know each other, Marcy asks if she can excuse herself to take a quick shower. Paul says sure, but Marcy makes him promise to stay on the bed. Of course, his curiosity gets the better of him: He has to see what she got at the pharmacy and it's some sort of ointment to treat second-degree burns. He also finds a book depicting horrible, disfiguring burns and is horrified as he peruses them before quickly returning to his spot on the bed. Marcy scolds him for not following her orders to stay right where he was, but she forgives him and they decide to go to a diner.
On the DVD commentary, Scorsese praises actors for their bravery, specifically Griffin Dunne for his willingness to stand below for the dangerous and tricky keys point-of-view shot that Scorsese felt was key to the whole film. The clip above picks up from the end of the cab ride and includes the amazing shot of the keys drop and goes on much beyond that. The key drop was a challenge for Ballhaus to put together. Though the sequence only takes a few seconds of screentime, it exists of nearly a dozen shots and involved a complicated setup that included placing the camera on bungee cords, a piece of wood with a hole cut in it and the keys themselves, which were really like a projectile hurtling at Dunne's head. Scorsese saw Paul's acceptance of the keys as the moment he sells his soul to Soho, so to speak. For spectators, such as Amy Robinson, filming the scene was frightening enough, but Dunne was willing to do it again, just to get it right. The entire shoot required energy and perseverance from all involved. Scorsese insisted that the entire shooting schedule be done at night, from sunset to sunrise. They could have shot interiors during the daytime, but he would have none of that. When they'd break for "lunch" around midnight, they'd sometime wonder why restaurants would be closed. In any other city, there wouldn't have been as many available options as they did find in New York. As Ballhaus explained in the commentary, longer shoots can present their own problems with more money and bigger cast and crews and they'd be lucky to finish five or six shots a day on a 100-day shoot. For After Hours, they completed 16 shots a day in a 40-day shoot — all at night.
For the uninitiated, to spoil much more of the plot developments would ruin the twisted fun of a truly unpredictable comedy, a comedy that will tie your stomach in knots as you wonder whether or not Paul Hackett can survive this evening or not. At the same time, After Hours contains so many kooky characters played by such a talented ensemble and delivers so many classic moments and memorable lines, in its own way for those who have shared in its madness, it's as quotable as Airplane! There's the story Marcy tells about the movie her husband obsesses with and what it leads him to shout every time he climaxes during sex; when Paul, eager to escape uptown, learns the subway fare has risen at midnight to $1.50 and all he has left is change and tries to convince the subway clerk to give him a break because no one is around to find out and the clerk responds, "I could go to a party, get drunk, talk to somebody. Who knows?"; there's the entire sequence with Teri Garr playing the cocktail waitress, seemingly transported out of the late 1960s, obsessed with The Monkees and with a bed encircled with mouse traps. She also gets a great line when she quits (or was she fired) her waitressing job and mutters under her breath about how figuring 8% sales tax is a bitch. There's also great work from Verna Bloom, Catherine O'Hara, John Heard, Cheech & Chong and many fine character actors you'd recognize but may not know by name.
Dunne, who essentially has the dual role as the film's straight man and victim, delivers many of the film's best lines with panache. When he finally gets frustrated with Marcy's eccentricities and is just ready to go home, he indignantly demands to know where those damn bagel and cream cheese paperweights are. That's why he came down. "At this very moment, important papers are flying rampant around my apartment and I don't have anything to hold them down," he shouts. Later, as he trying to hide from a vigilante mob who mistakenly believes he's behind a series of burglaries, Scorsese uses the film's only crane shot as Hackett falls to his knees in the street and cries out, "I'm just a word processor for Christ's sake." Of course, the entire film is another example of how different the situation would be today in the universe of cell phones, though I imagine in a modern day After Hours, Paul's phone's battery would run out and no charger would be available.
As you would expect from Scorsese, his camera almost never slows down, often aided by a great Howard Shore score that almost plays more like a sound effect than music. Scorsese's first cut of the film came in at 2 hours and 40 minutes and though it meant cutting some scenes he did like, he knew it was too much for the film to work as a comedy. Joseph Minion's screenplay originally ended with Paul imprisoned in papier mache and being driven off in a van by Cheech and Chong to an uncertain fate, but the ending didn't satisfy test audiences or the many friends Scorsese showed it too (including Steven Spielberg). (By the way, what happened to Joseph Minion? He wrote Vampire's Kiss with Nicolas Cage in 1988 that I didn't care for and has a handful of other credits, but none that I've heard of or seem to have had much of a release, if any.) This is one case where changing the original ending actually was for the best and the idea came from the great Michael Powell (husband to Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker), who suggested his worst fate would be to end up back at his dead-end job again after the night he's just endured. When filming was completed, Scorsese gathered the cast and crew and said, "Thank you for giving me back my love of making movies." I think all movie lovers should be grateful to them for that and for After Hours itself. Wouldn't it be great to see Scorsese (or many other great filmmakers) try something like this again?