The scene playing out before cameras at the front picket gate of a Craftsman-style house in the Altadena foothills sounds like a familiar one: A put-upon wife says adios to her no-good husband, she thinks -- she hopes -- for the last time. But there are also some unorthodox elements -- the husband's teenage girlfriend waiting mere feet away in a black Chevy Malibu; that the steely-eyed wife is bankrolling the pair's flight from town; that her protective sense is directed more at the wayward youth in the car than at her husband; and last but not least, hubby's connection to a quadruple murder that would become one of Los Angeles' most notorious unsolved crimes. Which makes the man in this triangle pornography's most famous and infamous name, John Holmes.
The movie being filmed is "Wonderland," a crime docudrama named after the Laurel Canyon street on which in 1981 police discovered five steel-pipe-bludgeoned bodies -- four dead, one barely alive -- in a residence that was a thriving narcotics enclave. The established wisdom is that the bloodbath was a score-settling between drug gangs that Holmes was playing against each other, but a large chunk of the speculation, greatly increased since Holmes died of AIDS complications in 1988, focuses on the exact role the X-rated star played in the murders. Did he just lead the killers there? Did he take a few swings? Was he coerced?
The flashback-heavy L.A. noir on display in the "Wonderland" script makes for a "Rashomon"-style gonzo tour through the tangled versions of events that have tripped up investigators ever since, but what is constant is that the John C. Holmes depicted here is a far cry from Johnny Wadd, as his prodigiously endowed on-screen persona was known. As a shaggy-haired Val Kilmer manifests him today, slobbed out in faded jeans, tattered green jacket and sunglasses, Holmes is not adult film's acknowledged Porn King. He's a pathetic hustler-addict in the law's spotlight, desperate to keep the last two people on Earth who care about him -- the wife who'd been his platonic confidante for more than a decade, and the naive, doe-eyed mistress too caught up to ignore his flaws -- from abandoning him. Because "Wonderland" -- projected for a summer 2003 release -- is also, oddly enough, a kind of fractured love story.
"I'll get you the money back," Kilmer-as-Holmes mutters to his wife, stuffing an envelope of cash into his pocket. "Stop lying to me, John," says a dark-haired, severe-looking Lisa Kudrow as Sharon Holmes, the words crisply harsh, like a parent's to a hopelessly immature child. "It's a payoff. You understand that term, right? I'm paying you off to stay out of my life."
'He was a real romantic'
The 23-day shooting schedule on this under-$10-million Lions Gate production means that even emotionally tense scenes such as this must be bagged and tagged quickly to stay apace. Director James Cox, a focused, tousle-haired 27-year-old with the air of a hippie scientist, admits he's saving himself for the crescendo being filmed that night: Holmes' surprise appearance at his wife's house after the murders, bloodied and distraught.
"It's a real meat grinder of a story," says Cox. "You get exhausted."
Later, after the sun has disappeared, an antsy but good-natured Kilmer can be found in his fake-blood-dappled trailer down the street, biding time until he's called to shoot his big confessional scene. Of its gruesome intensity he jokes, "It's the worst." But even though he's in a movie full of dope peddlers, users, murderers and thieves, he finds that Holmes' relationships with Sharon and girlfriend Dawn Schiller -- played by Kate Bosworth -- make "Wonderland" legitimately emotional.
"He was a real romantic," Kilmer says of Holmes. "He really loved his girlfriend, and he was still friends with his wife, who wouldn't let him in her bed anymore after she found out he was doing pornography. He definitely was a tortured soul who did a lot of awful things to everybody, betrayed everyone in his business, every dealer he met, but he remained absolutely loyal to Sharon and Dawn."
The love affair between Kilmer and "Wonderland," however, took a while to develop. For as long as Cox, co-screenwriter Captain Mauzner and producer Holly Wiersma were shopping their screenplay -- a heavily researched reconfiguration of an earlier John Holmes script by two different writers -- Kilmer was their ideal Holmes. Wiersma cites the actor's seductive way with less-than-reputable characters like Jim Morrison ("The Doors") and Doc Holliday ("Tombstone") as a big part of their narrowing in on Kilmer. Holmes "in the script is not very likable, so there has to be something about him that's charming, and Val, every time he smiles, you see that," says Wiersma. "Without his charm, it wouldn't have worked."