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So Much for Keeping Secrets

The makers of 'Arlington Road' wanted to remain completely tight-lipped about its plot. But the marketers had other ideas.

July 04, 1999|JOE LEYDON | MSNBC.com film critic Joe Leydon is an occasional contributor to Calendar

In the perfect world envisioned by screenwriter Ehren Kruger, the masses would flock to multiplexes and buy tickets for "Arlington Road" without undue prodding by a marketing blitz.

"If such a thing were possible," Kruger said during a phone conversation while his prizewinning script was being filmed last year, "I'd like people to know nothing about this movie before they walked in the theater. Ideally, I'd like them just to know that they're walking into a story that is in some sense about the country they're living in today."

During several springtime weeks of location shooting in Houston, everyone involved with "Arlington Road" took their cues from Kruger and labored mightily to maintain a veil of secrecy over the movie's plot. Producer Peter Samuelson described the $30-million production as "a political horror film," then quickly added: "I don't want to say much more than that."

Mark Pellington, directing "Arlington Road" as his sophomore feature after "Going All the Way," was equally evasive: "This is a cautionary film--about people watching other people." No, thank you, he didn't care to elaborate.

The lead actors--including Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack and Hope Davis--were only slightly more forthcoming. While discussing his preparation for "Arlington Road," Robbins mentioned the titles of two books: James Coates' "Armed and Dangerous" and Morris Dees' "The Gathering Storm."

But before he could describe what he read, or explain why it was useful, Robbins caught himself mid-sentence. Then, with just a hint of a conspiratorial grin, he added: "Of course, the more learned people who know what these books are about will know that I've already said too much at this point."

Only a few beans were spilled in a cryptically imprecise precis contained in a studio press release: "Jeff Bridges stars as an anti-terrorism expert who grows extremely suspicious of the all-too-normal family who just moved into his suburban neighborhood. But the more he finds reason to fear his neighbors, the more his friends and colleagues grow convinced that he is simply battling his own personal demons."

As vague as that might sound, it's much more specific than anything that might have come from producer Samuelson. Indeed, Samuelson was such a stickler for secrecy during the filming of "Arlington Road" that he took the relatively unusual steps of providing his own ambiguously worded plot synopsis for the Internet Movie Data Base and prepared detailed "Interview Talking Points" for cast and crew. Under the heading of "What Not to Talk About With the Press," Samuelson listed five major plot elements. Last but not least on the list: "The ending of the film." No kidding.

When told that, in all probability, ad campaigns and coming-attractions trailers would lift the veil far in advance of his movie's release, Samuelson creased his lips in a frown of resignation.

"Yeah," he agreed, "we're worried about that, too. And all we can do here is push back in the other direction."

Trouble is, the marketing experts pushed a little harder. In October 1998, scarcely six months after the end of filming, trailers for "Arlington Road" began to appear in theaters. In three minutes of flashy and frenetic hard sell, the veil wasn't merely lifted--it was shredded.

But wait, there's more: Thanks to a series of unforeseen delays, "Arlington Road" is set to open Friday in North America--several weeks after its European premiere, and seven months after its originally scheduled January release date. All of which means that, for at least eight months, plot twists have been revealed and cats have scampered out of bags each time the trailer has unspooled.

To be fair, a few details were leaked in press releases long before the trailer first appeared.

Michael Farraday, the anti-terrorism expert played by Bridges, is a college professor who lives near Washington, D.C. (Why shoot in Houston? Cheaper and more convenient than D.C., according to Samuelson.)

Oliver and Cheryl, played by Robbins and Cusack, are his new neighbors. They become chummy with Michael after Michael saves the life of their young son. (How does Michael do this? Don't ask--that and the ending hold two of the handful of surprises left in the movie.) Michael, a widowed father with a son of his own, is deeply bitter about the death of his wife, an FBI agent who was killed during an ill-planned raid. (Any resemblance between flashbacks of this event and the real-life tragedy at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, isn't coincidental.) And even though he has begun to rebuild his life with the attentive help of an attractive graduate student (Davis), Michael can't help dwelling on the past.

Nor can he help noticing that Oliver and Cheryl are behaving in a suspicious manner. Or, to be more precise, in a manner that Michael interprets as suspicious.

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