He is 73 now, decades removed from his famous films like "Midnight Cowboy," "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" and "Marathon Man," yet Oscar-winning British director John Schlesinger admits he is still unnerved at the prospect of subjecting his latest movie, "The Next Best Thing," to preview test audiences for their post-production critique.
With four decades of filmmaking behind him, one of the sea changes in Hollywood that most alarms Schlesinger is the crucial role that marketing research now plays in the process.
"I never previewed any film until 'Marathon Man' [in 1976]," Schlesinger recalled. "So, all my period of work that I look back on as my best--'Darling,' 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday,' 'Day of the Locust'--all of which had kind of controversial elements--I never previewed a film. [The old] United Artists never insisted on that."
How preview audiences will respond to his latest film is anyone's guess at this point. The film tells the story of Abbie (Madonna) and Robert (Rupert Everett), best of friends who decide to form a family after too many cocktails leads to an unexpected pregnancy. Complicating matters is that Everett's character is gay.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 7, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Schlesinger award--Because of a copy editing error in a July 31 story on John Schlesinger, the year the director received an Outfest career achievement award was mistakenly reported. Schlesinger received the first Outfest career achievement award at the 1997 Outfest.
"If it's controversial, so be it," Schlesinger said with a shrug.
Some preview audiences, the director grouses, just "love being picked in order that they can turn into critics."
"I went once to a preview of mine, which wasn't good, and afterwards in a coffee shop--this was in New York--I saw some of the focus previewers come in and sit at the next table, not knowing who I was, boasting of the fact they could control the future of the movie and saying the way you can get onto the panel is this and blah, blah, blah," he recalled. "So, I don't think they can be trusted because one audience says one thing and the next audience says something else."
Which brings him to "The Next Best Thing."
"I don't know what is going to happen during the editing period and the previewing period," he said. "I hate all that."
"I think it's scary for all of us," echoed Madonna, who is working with the director for the first time. "I can't imagine making a record and before I finish playing it, let [test audiences] dictate what I should do. It's a horrifying thought that a movie has to pander to an audience and has to find an audience."
Based on a Tom Ropelewski screenplay, the $20-million to $25-million film--produced for Paramount Pictures by Lakeshore Entertainment--completed principal photography last month in Los Angeles.
Schlesinger, a stocky, balding man with neatly trimmed white whiskers, concedes that there were rigorous debates early in the production over how to portray the characters.
"There were many problems early on getting this off the ground," the director recalled. "Disagreements about the script. It wasn't that the producers resisted, but they wanted it told sort of in a different way."
There was a question, for example, of how much of the gay character's lifestyle should be shown.
"Nobody said, 'We don't want Rupert Everett's character to be gay,' " Schlesinger said. "He was always gay. Perhaps it was a question of how much to show of that. I think it's quite discreet, but also quite clear. . . . You know what his lifestyle is--the fact that he goes out on a date when he is the father."
The plot thickens when Abbie meets a man (Benjamin Bratt) who bowls her off her feet.
"It deals with the consequences of that and Rupert being somewhat left out in the cold until they threaten to take the child away and the child has become so much a part of his life," Schlesinger explained. "He gives up everything for him."
The son (played by newcomer Malcolm Stumpf) learns about his father's sexual orientation from school friends.
"During a big New Year's party, which [the parents] host in the garden, a bunch of children come in and one of the oldest girls says, 'Well, who sleeps in here?' " Schlesinger explained. "And, Sam, the son, says, 'My dad does.' 'Why doesn't he sleep with your mother?' [he is asked]. And, one of the children says, 'Because he's a faggot.'
"Sam doesn't know what the word means and the other boy doesn't know what it means either," the director continued. "And one of the other children says, 'It's what my father says to people in traffic who block his way.' So, there is some humor of that kind in the movie, which is very nice."
For the final weeks of filming, the cast and crew were ensconced in a cramped Mediterranean-style house adorned outside with bougainvillea in Silver Lake.
Directors his age often have difficulty finding studio projects in today's youth-obsessed Hollywood, but Schlesinger was selected by Madonna because she felt he could bring sensitivity to the story.
"I just think he was suited to the subject matter," she said. "I thought he could breathe some humanity into the characters and not stereotype them."