Joe Roth, the former Walt Disney Studios chief who formed Revolution Studios in January 2000, remembers Nick Wells (Robert De Niro) is ready to retire from crime. He’ll settle down with his girlfriend, Diane (Angela Bassett), and focus on running his legitimate business: a Montreal jazz club. But Max (Marlon Brando), his fence, friend and financial partner, has other plans for him.first reading Billy Crystal & Peter Tolan's script for America's Sweethearts (2001).
"I was caught up in the tone and the humor of the screenplay," he explains. He envisioned an almost farcical ensemble piece that hearkened back to the great screwball comedies of the past.
"I love the movies from the 1930s and '40s, the Sturges films and the Capra films where an entire cast of characters comes together," he continues. "Audiences have been deprived of this lately because of the realities of the movie business. America's Sweethearts reminded me of the movies I liked," he continues, "the great gang comedies of the past. "
Although in the past 10 years Roth has run both 20th Century Fox and Disney and launched Revolution, his passion has always been directing. Roth hadn't helmed a film since the 1990 comedy/drama Coupe de Ville.
"I could feel I was getting the directing bug again," says Roth. "I went years without wanting to direct, but then three projects came along that really made me want to again. " These films-High Fidelity (2000), Hurricane, the (1999) and Remember the Titans (2000)-would go on to be directed by others. But Roth wasn't going to let America's Sweethearts pass him by.
"When I was done with the script I thought, 'this is funny. ' If you're reading a comedy and you're laughing out loud, there's a really good chance that other people will as well," says Roth. "It had really great characters."
"When Julia said she wanted to do the movie," he adds, "I thought that would be great. " Roth has had a professional relationship with Roberts for nearly 15 years. "She really loved it, and she loved the idea of playing in an ensemble. I thought she'd be terrific in the film. "
Says Roberts: "The fact that Kiki and Gwen are sisters really attracted me to playing this character. Kiki is Gwen's protector. She's never been one to speak up, but I don't think she's being passive. I think it's actually about a real love she has for her sister and the sense that she needs to keep an eye on Gwen so that some of her less charming qualities stay in-house," she says.
The Cinderella aspect of the story of America's Sweethearts brought producers Susan Arnold and Donna Arkoff Roth to the film. The team is routinely attracted to projects that focus on unlikely heroes. "I think a story about a girl whose been kind of a mess but is now finding herself really appealed to us," says Donna Arkoff Roth. "Fairy tales are universal and really speak to people. The story's a fairy tale for Kiki, and this sort of world is glamorous and fun for people to experience. "
Kiki always had her hands full working for Gwen and being a good friend to Eddie, even when the couple was together. Now that "America's Sweethearts" are kaput, her latest challenge is to convince the embattled stars to come together for the good of their careers. In doing so, she unwittingly prepares for some changes of her own.
"We catch Kiki as she's blossoming," says Donna arkoff Roth. "It's like standing at the top of a mountain and choosing which direction to take. She has to decide what she wants to do with her life, and that's new for her. "
The idea for America's Sweethearts sprang from the fertile comic mind of Billy Crystal, whose character, Lee Phillips, is the veteran press agent recruited from the brink of retirement just as he's about to be replaced by his much younger protégé, Danny Wax (Seth Green). Entrusted and grovelled to by panic-stricken studio head Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci), who believes the film will fail if the public does not believe the two stars have reunited, Lee agrees to come up with a plan to bring "America's Sweethearts" together again-however bogus this reunion might be-and bang out a box-office hit.
Having successfully collaborated with him on the script for "Analyze This (1999)," Crystal called Peter Tolan with the pitch. "I said I had an idea for a farce based on a famous movie star couple who had starred in many movies together that were tremendously successful. But their lives together are falling apart, and on their last movie together, a scenario happens that is similar to when eLizabeth Taylor left Eddie Fisher on Cleopatra and ran off with Richard Burton. From there, what would happen the next time the couple saw each other?"
Drawn from Crystal's years of promoting films and other industry ventures, he felt the natural and inevitable circumstance for the couple's reunion would be for the promotion of the film-at its press junket.
"It's a great setting for a movie," says Crystal. "It's the perfect environment for the dynamics among the characters to unfold. "
Moreover, the press junket premise provides a distinct window of time for the action, which appealed to Joe Roth. "I like a movie with a clock," he says. "The story has a period of time in which the action will take place, like the classic comedies. "
For Catherine Zeta jones, bringing to life the incredibly narcissistic superstar Gwen Harrison was delightfully naughty. "Gwen is just so into herself, it's sickening!" laughs Zeta-Jones. "She is definitely the center of her own universe. Thank goodness Kiki is her assistant because you can only get away with such ridiculous behavior with your siblings. "
"The great thing to me was not only that Catherine could do this comedy so well, but that she did it so unapologetically," observes Joe Roth. "She accepted the fact that her character was very selfish and demanding. "
"Catherine is an old-fashioned movie star," continues Roth, "but at the same time completely modern in her willingness and capability to do absolutely anything. "
John Cusack plays Eddie Thomas, Gwen's soon-to-be ex-husband. "Eddie's the kind of guy who wanted to be a serious actor," explains Cusack of his character, "but he ended up falling into these big mainstream action/romance movies with Gwen. They sort of become this personality industry. Then they have the worst tabloid scandal break-up you can imagine. "
"The film picks them up at a point where they have to go promote the last film that they made together, and they're both pretty ragged. "
Like Tracy and Hepburn on-screen over the course of nine successful films, box-office sensations Gwen and Eddie eventually set in motion a disaster worthy of Laurel and Hardy off-screen, leaving their fans devastated and their careers in shambles. Now, Gwen is desperate to regain her popularity sans Eddie and to finally serve him with divorce papers. For Eddie, it's time to resurrect his career after months in therapy with his "wellness guide" (Alan Arkin) to "heal" from Gwen's humiliating and very public ongoing affair with her Castillian leading man, Hector (Hank Azaria). A weekend together to promote their last movie as "America's Sweethearts" will not only serve many purposes for all involved, but make studio chief Dave Kingman very happy.
"From Kingman's point of view, it's all about saving his studio, saving his job, saving his career," Stanley Tucci explains. "The success of this press junket is a make-or-break for him. "
Joe Roth encouraged Tucci's broad portrayal of the stressed-out studio exec. "I encouraged him to be highly volatile and emotional," Roth laughs, "because that's what we all are. Stanley kept saying, 'should I be this big?' and I said, 'and bigger!'"
Although he's just been pink-slipped in favor of an industry whiz kid, the beleaguered Lee Phillips has one ace up his sleeve. "Lee is the guy who's handled publicity on all of Gwen and Eddie's greatest films," says Crystal. "He's the only one who can pull this event off, and everyone knows it. "
Crystal's fellow producers Susan Arnold and Donna Arkoff Roth laugh, noting, "Lee is in that classic Godfather place-'Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!'"
What's essential to Lee Phillips' plan for pulling off a successful event is getting the press to an isolated location where he can magically bring "America's Sweethearts" together again without the distractions of the outside world.
One problem-legendary film director Hal Weidmann, played by Christopher Walken, is holding his film-his "masterpiece"-hostage. Worse, the press junket is the first time anyone at the studio will have a chance to see the movie. As the weekend ticks by, no film has arrived, keeping everyone in suspense.
"Hal's an interesting guy an innovator," says Walken. "He's making a different kind of movie. Hal is a little bit hard to handle because he is, according to himself, a great filmmaker," chuckle Donna Arkoff Roth and Susan Arnold. "He's in that great tradition of very big star directors who don't take any guff from the studio and probably don't really listen to anyone. "
John Cusack thinks of the storyline of America's Sweethearts as a kind of greatest hits of Hollywood's most horrible moments. "There's probably no one kind of movie star where all these situations have happened to them, but you put five or six of them together, and it could be pretty close to reality," he chuckles.
Joe Roth was also struck by the art-imitating-life parallels in the movie. One of his favorite scenes in the film is the sequence where Gwen, trailed by Kiki, walks through a throng of fans. "The fans are getting Catherine's autograph," says Roth, "and Julia is standing right in front of the fans and they are paying her no attention. I find it a delicious irony that here's this fabulous star who probably has a difficult time walking the streets without that happening, and all of it is happening, but it's not happening to her. "
America's Sweethearts shot on locations in Los Angeles, on soundstages at Sony Pictures and at the Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas Resort in Henderson, Nevada, 40 minutes east of and worlds away from the electrifying hustle and bustle of the Las Vegas strip. This new resort was the ideal remote junket location called for in the storyline of the movie.
"Lee and Kiki send everyone off to a desert hotel that no one's ever been to. It's not even really finished," explains Joe Roth. "It's kind of like the hotel in The Shining. "
In reality, the location of the Hyatt Regency is an area that is remote and currently under development. Cell phone reception was actually quite difficult and was, once again, another way the film could imitate life imitating art, etc.
Production designer Garreth Stover, who also directed second unit on America's Sweethearts, enjoyed the search for the perfect remote location.
"What we ultimately felt was a great choice was an actual working Hyatt hotel with Moroccan décor. It was a perfect environment for the story and gave me, from a design perspective, good bones to expound upon. From the very beginning, Joe's direction was comedy-bright and uplifting. We took what existed and heightened it to a more romantic and happy look," Stover adds.
Since Moroccan décor is typically heavy and dark, Stover and his colleague, set decorator Larry Dias, lightened and warmed up the color palettes. Moroccan accents were balanced with color and "lots of flowers"-obvious additions to any movie star's suite.
Phedon Papamichael, the film's director of photography, also kept the lighting up-key and natural.
"I didn't want the lighting to look overly glamorous, especially since it's a movie about Hollywood," says Papamichael. "Instead, Joe wanted and I crafted a much more low-key approach-a happy environment that was simple, non-obtrusive and not competitive with the characters. "
The film's production team also included costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, whose own designs for the film, especially for Zeta-Jones, mirror an illustrious career spent designing fashion for movie stars. Jeffrey Kurland designed the costumes for Julia Roberts
Also collaborating with Roth was film editor Stephen A. Rotter, whose recent success with What Women Want (2000) made him a natural choice to mine the comedic treasures of America's Sweethearts. Working with Revolution and Roth for the first time was visual effects consultant and multiple Academy Award® winner Ken Ralston, whose exceptional creative abilities were used to enhance aspects of the film and help create the happy Hollywood ending these "America's Sweethearts" required.
"Comedy is like a good tonic," adds Donna Arkoff Roth. "People have a lot of things that worry them in life-a lot of stresses. There's nothing like sitting and laughing for a while, and that's what we hope to accomplish with this film.
"I hope people will laugh out loud when they see the movie," says Joe Roth. "It's as simple as that. "