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This Crew Gladly Went Overboard

While making the slapstick farce 'The Impostors,' Stanley Tucci let the cast play it fast and loose.

September 27, 1998|Marshall Fine | Marshall Fine covers film and entertainment for Gannett Newspapers in New York

NEW YORK — Actress Allison Janney sits at a swellegant Art Deco bar, her hair a dark curtain of Louise Brooks bangs above her eyes. Then she begins to sexually harass a swizzle stick with her tongue.

But it's not her swizzle sizzle that has people behind the camera laughing: It's the shameless hootchie-coo her eyes and eyebrows are dancing as accompaniment. As she completes her optical tango with a flourish, director Stanley Tucci calls "Cut!" then, with a knowing smile to Janney, says, "That was cheap and shameless. I'm not even going to edit it. I'm just going to show it like that."

Yes, the take may be a winner--not of a place in Tucci's new film, "The Impostors," but of a Jambon d'Or--the Golden Ham award given out for the most outrageous take of the day. And the competition is fierce.

Janney, after all, is up against Tucci himself, as well as the Sundance All-Stars cast he has assembled for this Fox Searchlight-backed comedy: Oliver Platt, Steve Buscemi, Lili Taylor, Alfred Molina, Campbell Scott, Tony Shalhoub, Dana Ivey, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini and Billy Connelly, among others.

The cast is having a ball; Tucci, after all, is directing a farce. So he's allowing his actors (most of whom are old friends of his) the latitude to have a little fun on the Depression-era ocean liner set he has built at Silvercup Studios in Queens.

"We're doing farce, and it's a very physical piece," Tucci, 36, says. "Although I hope it's about something--it's not just stupid gags. Everybody has at least two sides they show in this film. And the story focuses on a pair of actors who are constantly trying on different personalities. It's about ideas of who people are, how they present themselves, how they're perceived, and who they really are."

Jonathan Filley, the film's executive producer, says, "It's fun to see these actors doing stuff you don't expect them to do."

Such as Buscemi playing a suicidal big-band crooner? "How about Oliver Platt in a dress?" Filley offers.

As enticing a prospect as that may seem, it apparently was not enough to get a film company interested in taking the plunge with Tucci into the kind of slapstick farce the writer-director envisioned. Despite being firmly located on the Hollywood radar after the independent success of his 1996 debut film, "Big Night," Tucci and producing partner Beth Alexander kept running into the same reaction whenever they pitched "The Impostors" (initially titled "Ship of Fools" and playfully referred to on the set as "All Hams on Deck").

"The response was always the same: 'A farce? Nobody makes farces,' " Alexander says. "When Hollywood hears 'farce,' they head for the hills."

Some executives simply didn't think the script was funny; others thought it would be fine, if Tucci and Alexander could cut the budget from $12 million to $6 million, despite the expense of shooting a period film. The duo finally hooked up with Fox Searchlight; division president Lindsay Law, an early supporter of the script, was able to convince the Fox hierarchy to finance the film for $8 million.

"We're in the business of making movies that aren't like other movies," Law says. "And this is a kind they haven't made in years. It's like a Marx Brothers movie, unlike anything in the marketplace."

The film focuses on two Depression-era unemployed actors, played by Tucci and Platt, who spend their bountiful free time creating scenes in public, just for the practice. When they insult and unintentionally assault a famous thespian (Molina), they're forced to flee for their lives--and wind up as accidental stowaways on a ship headed for England. As they try to stay one jump ahead of the authorities, they uncover a variety of plots, including murder, fraud and terrorism, involving the seemingly normal passengers and crew of the ship.

"The idea of these two characters came out of an improv Stan and I used to do to warm up together," recalls Platt, who met Tucci in the late 1980s in a production of John Guare's "Moon Over Miami" directed by Andrei Belgrader at the Yale Repertory Theater. "We would amuse ourselves playing these two ridiculous characters. Stanley said nothing more about it and went off end wrote the script."

Finished during the fall 1996 period when "Big Night" was being released, the script went into production in mid-July 1997, filming on locations in New York and New Jersey, including a WPA-era medical building in Jersey City that had doubled as the lobby of NBC in Robert Redford's "Quiz Show." Then Tucci spent a month on the ocean liner set at the studio in Queens.

Where Tucci had co-director Scott to keep an eye on his performance while directing "Big Night," he relied on Belgrader, a longtime mentor who served as the film's creative consultant, to provide the feedback on Tucci's acting in "The Impostors."

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