SAN RAFAEL — Inside the cavernous special-effects stage on the east side of the Industrial Light & Magic compound, Chevy Chase is seated across from actress Daryl Hannah on what will eventually appear as an elegant double bed. Dressed from head to ankle in a blue hooded Mylar body suit, face dabbed with a viscous blue cosmetic, tongue and teeth coated with blue food coloring, and the cornea of each eye covered with blue contact lenses, Chase looks a bit other-worldly and not at all invisible--which is the whole point of the shot.
Hannah is applying flesh-colored make-up over the blue surface of Chase's face. Later, using an optical composite, everything blue will disappear and the makeup will gradually assume the contours of an otherwise unseen person before her.
It's one of the last days of principal photography on "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," but the mid-June heat is slowly escalating the temperature in the ostensibly air-conditioned studio, lit by the glare of unusually intense 5,000-watt beacons mandated by the special effects. Rotary fans are fired up between takes but offer little relief to the actors, especially Chase, virtually shrink-wrapped in his non-porous suit. The process is painstaking, as all shots of such high-tech complexity are, but Chase is keeping everyone entertained.
Quietly approached by an assistant cameraman, Chase exclaims: "What was that? I'm sorry, you'll have to speak up. I can't hear you with these lenses on."
To the sound recordist, delaying the take for an unaccountable, low-level noise only he can hear on his headphones: "That's my pocket watch in the trailer, Jim. Let's have someone go shut the closet. . . . If my pulse is bothering you, let me know."
To Hannah's playful comment, "What if she drew a mustache on him?" Chase: "Yes, sort of a Tom Dewey look. For those of you who don't remember, he was a great literary man in his day. He ran against Truman to write front-page fiction for the Chicago Tribune."
And later, to the announcement that this is Hannah's final scene and day on the set: "OK, those that bet me she wouldn't make it through, I'd like my five bucks."
It's what you expect of Chevy Chase, the wit, the bravado, the ingratiating charm, even if he is percolating inside the Mylar. He's made people laugh ever since his brilliant, single season 16 years ago on "Saturday Night Live" and through his subsequent 17 major films.
But later, inside his well-appointed Winnebago trailer and wearing a collegiate style denim button-down shirt, tawny corduroys and a pair of well-broken-in Topsiders, the 48-year-old actor explained that there was a bit more to it for him.
"I think my true talents are in making people laugh," Chase said. "And I enjoy that. But there's a very different side to me, a darker, more morose side that's never come through and that I feel I need to explore. And one way to do that, I've realized, is through the craft of acting.
Hence "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," which despite the earlier antics on the set, is a sometimes grim parable of a man desperate to make himself whole again.
Based on the best-selling 1987 novel by H. F. Saint, "Memoirs" is the story of Nick Holloway, an affluent Bay Area securities broker who "discorporates" after a covert nuclear experiment goes awry. He becomes the quarry of a relentless manhunt spearheaded by a renegade U.S. government agent (Sam Neill). His only ally becomes the young woman (Hannah) he'd been smitten with before the accident and who falls in love with him.
For the first time in his career, Chase plays it straight, with hard dramatic edge.
"I've been thinking about it for five years," Chase says. "I've been involved in this script and the project for a long time and there isn't a scene that I haven't thought very deeply about."
There is humor, however.
"The predicament of invisibility lends itself to comedy," Chase says, "but its organic to the story, more relief than anything else. There's no mugging or above-it-all sarcasm or a big continual effort at broad comedy. It's not the kind of picture where I have to carry it with that stuff to keep people interested. The story will keep people interested.
"Most of the films I've done tend toward a series of gags and bites," he says. "This is a suspense, with romantic and comic overtones. It's about this guy's dark, anxious, traumatic situation and the uncertainty of what will happen to him."
Warner Bros., with whom Chase's Cornelius Productions has a non-exclusive four-picture contract, acquired the rights to "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" in 1986 with a then-record $1.25 million for a first novel.
To get the darkness and anxiety he wanted on the screen, Chase chose director John Carpenter, whose films include "Halloween," "The Thing," "Prince of Darkness," "Starman" and "They Live."
Chase was also trying to deal with an increasing disillusionment with his own career.