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DVDeconstruction: Misery
by Zombie Boy

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Umber...uhn...fannnn....

Umber...uhn...fannnn....
As Angela mention in her latest column, I've been watching MISERY a bunch lately. It has long been one of my favorite King adaptations, but I never owned a copy. I 'd see it for $7.50 at that store, you know the one, but was too chagrined at the lack of special features to pick it up (if you haven't guessed by now, I am a bear for special features). So I was quite chuffed to receive a copy for Valentine's Day (along with BLACK SHEEP [the weresheep one, not the wereChrisFarley one] and HATCHET my g/f rules). It actually took me a moment to realize that I was holding in my very hands the new Collector's Edition, the existence of which I was previously ignorant to, complete with special features galore. I'm pretty sure it started glowing in my grasp, and singing harp music that only I could hear. So whether it is a worthy column subject or not, it's what you're getting. But hell, since writing columns about how you're going to write a column or how you didn't write a column seem to be acceptable practices, I guess I can do any damn thing I want, suckas :)

Apparently this Collector's Edition came out in late 2007, and the one I have has a different cover than the original issue. The original has a close-up shot of Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes holding a knife ominously, and the case is designed to look like a book. But I am not one to quibble: I want the features, and the prettier the jewel case the more it will hurt when I damage it by taking the DVD in and out, over and over again (I am also a bear for repeat viewings). The cover image on mine is Bates in profile, holding the infamous sledge (looks like maybe an eight-pounder, but it's hard to be sure). In the background is what appears to be James Caan as Paul Sheldon, prone in his bed/prison. I say appears to be, because the image of Kathy Bates is obviously a recently taken picture, and the man in the bed has his face turned slightly away, so you can't see him clearly.

The first thing that you'll notice when you pop the jewel case open is that it contains an actual booklet, and not just an insert card promoting other MGM films. I can't tell you when the last time I saw an actual booklet come with a DVD, or at least one that wasn't part of a box set or an extremely limited edition. It's only a tri-fold, but contains a solid two and a half pages of type. Mostly snippets from interviews with the cast and crew, assembled as a fluff piece telling the wonders of a great film. Since I also happen to agree with everything said, I don't mind a bit of fluff now and again.

In order to facilitate the writing of this column, I have decided to break it up into manageable chunks. So, without further ado, here goes:

The Genesis:

Apparently Rob Reiner's Castle Rock producing partner, Andrew Scheinman, picked up and read Misery during a flight layover, and loved it so much he called Reiner about seeing to the film rights. Neither man thought they would be available, since by that point most King books were optioned while they were still galleys. So it was much to their surprise to find it still available. Seems that it was King's favorite novel, and a deeply personal one to him, and he didn't want to see it screwed up on film, like so many other's he was dissatisfied with. But since he was (rightly so) impressed with Reiner's previous foray into King territory, STAND BY ME (adapted, lovingly and faithfully, from the Novella The Body, one of the four pieces located in Different Seasons), he decided to sell the rights: with the caveat that Reiner himself either produce or direct it. Reiner agreed in a heartbeat, though he only intended to produce it.

It was only during the script meetings that he decided to direct. The book began to strike a personal note with him, too. The main character, Paul Sheldon, is an author who is unhappily famous for a series of romance novels featuring the vapid Misery Chastain, hence giving the book's title a double entendre. He desperately wants to branch out into other genres, and write what he considers to be more serious work, to be taken more seriously as an artist. So he kills Chastain in his forthcoming book, and sets about finishing a more personal piece, a novel called Fast Cars (which goes unnamed in the movie). Except he has a leg-crushing car accident as soon as he is done and leaves his Colorado hotel, and is "saved" by his "number one fan", the deranged Annie Wilkes. He is already in trouble just by being in her company, but she goes off the deep end (which is saying something, since she lives her life in twelve-feet of mental water to begin with) when she gets his new book and finds out what he's done to her beloved
This is no time to get writer's block, Paul.

This is no time to get writer's block, Paul.
character. And then the torture, both physical and emotional, begins in earnest.

The story, in essence, is about struggling to stretch your creative wings, while not losing the fanbase that made you famous in the first place. King struggled with this at the time, and probably still does now, always being known as a pulp guy, the horror guy. Rob Reiner began to relate to that, in how he was ignored and ridiculed when attempting to transition from sitcom actor to feature film director. People only knew Michael "Meathead" Stivic from All in the Family, and refused to take him seriously. It was only after years of hard work (and a string of well made, well received films) that he began to get the credit he so richly deserved. Can you imagine what the world of cinema would be like if Reiner had caved to the pressure and given up? No THIS IS SPINAL TAP? No THE SURE THING? No PRINCESS BRIDE? I shudder to even think of it.

The Script:

To write the script, Reiner and his co-producers brought William Goldman on board, whom Reiner had worked with before on the aforementioned PRINCESS BRIDE. Goldman is no slouch when it comes to screenwriting: he has written many famous films. Some based on his own novels, like THE MARATHON MAN and MAGIC, some based on other author's novels, like Ira Levin's THE STEPFORD WIVES and Cornelius Ray's A BRIDGE TOO FAR (also starring James Caan), as well as original screenplays. Little films like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE goddamn SUNDANCE KID.

Goldman's strategy for writing a script is to read the book a few dozen times, each time making notes in the margin with a different-colored pen. When he finally sits down to begin the meat and potatoes typewriter-banging (that sounded dirty, in a very Burroughs kind of way), he assumes that pages with little to no notations can be excluded, and ones with many loops and whorls of ink need to be included. This system has apparently worked for him in the past, and it certainly does with MISERY. Even though he makes necessary changes (some out of whole cloth) to facilitate the transfer of the story from the page to the screen, he retains the essence of the material, and never switches gears on King (I'm looking at you, THE SHINING).

The Cast:

The casting of this film is worth note. Right from the beginning, they knew they wanted an unknown to play Annie Wilkes. That way, they could make her out to be a normal person to begin with, and set up her madness incrementally. You would never be quite sure what she was on about, or what she might be capable of doing. I hate to slam THE SHINING again, because I really do love that movie, but casting Jack Nicholson was the exact opposite of casting Kathy Bates, a then unknown, because you immediately knew Nicholson from playing unstable people. The tension was deflated before it ever began, and you just waited for him to start mugging for the camera. And Bates is very pretty, but not a conventional looking leading lady. Also, she is a phenomenal actress, and can portray sweet and kind, and then switch to raving lunatic and back again in a second, and that totally unnerves the viewer. The role was literally written for Bates, as Goldman had seen her on Broadway. When he mentioned her name to Reiner, who was also aware of her stage work, he agreed immediately. Annie Wilkes problem solved. Now on to Paul Sheldon.

That didn't go nearly as easily.

For the role of the famous author, they wanted to go in completely the opposite direction and get someone quite well known. Just to ratchet up the tension even before the film begins. Here you have a celebrity in this unknown woman's bed, legs shattered and arm in a sling. Just what the hell does she plan to do to Sonny Corleone, yannow?

We all want to believe that actors do projects based on artistic reasons, and they don't act petty and vain. I'd also like to believe in unicorns, but can't quite manage that either. Apparently a wide number of actors turned the script down, not only not wanting to be subjugated by a female in the film, but not wanting to be subjugated by an unknown female. So out the window went Harrison Ford, William Hurt, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Kevin Kline. Even Richard Dreyfuss, who agreed to do the role sight unseen, since he was still reeling from turning down WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, bowed out after reading the script. Bunch of pussies. Warren Beatty was set to direct, as well as star, but opted against it in order to do DICK TRACY. Ha ha, jerk. (Reiner credits Beatty's initial input into script revisions as really helping to tighten plotholes, so I guess he should get some credit. But he's still a cafone).

To take it to even another extreme, there is the case of Lauren Bacall
This ain't no pedicure you ever want, trust me.

This ain't no pedicure you ever want, trust me.
appearing in a few scenes as Sheldon's agent, Marcia Sindell (named after Reiner's own agent). She actually called up Reiner's people and asked to be in the film when she heard it was being made. Asked him if it was okay that she took a small role. He thought about it for about a nanosecond, and said okay.

The Changes:

The first change from page to screen I want to mention is the addition of an outside influence, in the form of the local Sidewinder sheriff, Buster, played with alacrity by veteran stuntman and all around charming old coot Richard Farnsworth. Any incidents of law enforcement appearance in the book, which are all peripheral, as the narrative focuses tightly on Sheldon the entire time, are amalgamated into Buster. He also serves as a way to get outside of the house, and a little comic relief. He is given a worthy foil in the form of his wife, Virginia, played by the always wonderful Frances Sternhagen.

One of the biggest changes is in the relationship between Paul and Annie. She gives him the imaginary morphine-based pain reliever Novril, but in the book he becomes quite addicted, and that is the largest way she keeps a hold over him. In the movie they ignored that aspect, and imbue Sheldon with slightly more mental fortitude than he has in the book. They choose instead to make it a cat and mouse game between the two. They have Sheldon in several scenes play up a possible romantic angle, to try to gain some advantage on his captor. I think this change is necessary and inspired. Since the movie can't take the viewer into Sheldon's head for fifty pages, they need to put something on screen that can be seen and mentally digested immediately.

Another really great change is that Annie admits to having stalked Sheldon outside his hotel room while he was finishing his new book, since she was his number one fan and knew his whole routine better than he did. That makes a lot of sense, since in the book King leaves it as pretty much a horrible, horrible coincidence.

Special Effects:

The film doesn't seem like it has much along the lines of special effects, and that is how a film should look.

Right in the first scene, we have the car crash. Since they didn't exactly want to spend all day and half the budget wrecking Mustangs, they opted to set up nine cameras to catch the crash, and figured they'd have enough footage from that to piece it together (they did, even though only six of the cameras worked properly). I think that is very funny, since on a low-budget film, often my favorite kind, they simply would have crashed the car, and if it didn't work, well, they had a car crash that looked like shit, and they had to dress it up as best they could (think KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE).

In the scene where some paper item is burning in a grill, indoors, Reiner employed the crew to "float" burning pieces of paper up to the ceiling on fishing lines. I find that rather ingenious, but of course nowadays they'd simply put it in in post, using CGI. *grumble, grumble*

It is also interesting to note that two room sets were built: one full room on a soundstage, and one half room on location, so that they could see actual stuff outside by looking out Sheldon's window, or have a character outside looking in. For the soundstage stuff, they put up a device outside the window called a translight, which is basically a backdrop of whatever you want outside, with a light shining through from the back. It is so effective that I defy you to watch any one scene and be able to tell if it is real or translight.

Lastly, I want to point out Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld (seeing as how MISERY is the last film he DPed before moving on to directing). He does a very good job at a task most people never notice or think about. But just bear in mind for a second that the man needed to find interesting ways to shoot characters who mainly exist in the same room for most of the film. He does the job with aplomb, as evidence by how I never got bored watching even static scenes. He also rigged up the eye-catching scene where the camera is in Wilkes's truck, looking out at and tracking along Buster and Virginia, and when she passed by, the camera makes a full 180 and ends up pointing back at Wilkes's face. It is very clever. Even if there is obviously no windshield in her truck. Whoops.

Special Features:

There are two commentaries on the disc, one by Rob Reiner and one by William Goldman, both from which I culled most of the information in this article. That being said, I think that they could have gotten by just having them both do it at the same time. Would have cut down on blank spaces, and saved me two hours. But both are interesting and informative, even when
I don't see what the fuss is about: she looks pretty harmless to me.

I don't see what the fuss is about: she looks pretty harmless to me.
they are being wildly wrong. Like Reiner mentioning that Buster was in the book, which he wasn't. Or Goldman saying something about how it is too bad King never did anything else with the Annie Wilkes character, since King doesn't really bring characters back. Um, are you sure, Bill? Maybe you ought to read more King. He tends to do it All. The. Time.

I found it particularly delicious when both of them made comments about how no one watches the commentaries, and Reiner says that no one watches the end credits. To quote Bugs Bunny: "He don't know me very well, do he?"

On a side note, Goldman says the last time he saw the film before doing his commentary was when they screened it for King, in 1989. He says that was 13 years ago. So either he is not very good at math, or his commentary was recorded 5 years before we got to hear it. What's up with that?

Anyway.

There are also several neat featurettes:

1. Misery Loves Company: this is your basic EPK series of interviews with cast and crew. It is cool to hear them reminisce, and see what they look like now, after having seen them so young in the film.

2. Marc Shaiman's Musical Misery Tour: this is a little piece about, duh, putting together the score for the film. It is interesting to hear the take on it from the man who actually wrote it. He was on his best behavior since Misery was one of the first films he did on his own. I can honestly say that I watch the movie differently after having watched this. Listen for the tinkling piano keys!

3. Diagnosing Annie Wilkes: This is a very interesting interview with a forensic psychologist named Dr. Reid Meloy, and as he lays out all of the different facets of Annie Wilkes's derangements.

4. Advice for the Stalked: This one also has Meloy, along with John C. Lane of The Omega Threat Management Group, Inc., and Rhonda Saunders, and LA County Prosecutor. Not much mention of the movie is made here.

5. Profile of a Stalker: Same trio.

6. Celebrity Stalkers: Same trio.

7. Anti-Stalking Laws: Same trio. Again, no mention of the movie.

The above mentioned interviews are all very interesting and informative, but they are also really short, and I think they could have been combined into one longer piece. Would have saved me some damn clicking, anyway.

Lastly, items 8 and 9 are trailers. One regular trailer, and one special Christmas Card addition, which is worth the price of the disc itself.

Flubs:

C'mon, you all know you love hearing about the goofs and gaffes. Like the windshield bit I mentioned above. Or how Annie's Memory Lane book has a clipping that calls her Anne C. Wilkes in one section, and Anne M. Wilkes in another. Huh? Or how Annie whacks Paul on the legs with the box of Corrasable Bond...except she never picks the box up. She has the lid in her hands, and then she hits him. Never lifts the box up.

On the commentary side, it is interesting to hear Reiner say they had to explain why Sheldon would only have one copy of his new novel, except it is most certainly explained in the book, in some detail, actually. Or how Goldman is talking about needing an unknown for Wilkes's part, actually saying that the audience wouldn't believe someone like Glenn Close doing all of those horrible scenes. Yeah. I guess it was sweet as pie when she boiled a bunny in FATAL ATTRACTION, huh?

Okay. So. That is it. Good movie, neat Collector's Edition disc. Even if the clacking typewriter keys sounds accompanying every menu does begin to grate after, oh, the very first time. But that aside, if you like the movie, then be sure to pick up this disc. And if you don't like this movie, just pick up the disc and tell people you do. You'll seem smarter that way.

SPOILER BIT SAVED FOR THE END, PLEASE DON'T READ IF YOU ARE NOT FAMILIAR WITH THE STORY:

The hobbling scene. You didn't think I would forget it, did you? C'mon, now! Apparently, the hobbling scene is what convinced Goldman to take the job. So when Reiner and co. decided to change it from cutting Sheldon's foot off with an ax to merely breaking both of his ankles with a sledgehammer, Goldman was livid. Began ranting and raving. It wasn't until he saw the dailies from that scene that he admitted being wrong. First and foremost, it just plays better on screen that way. Also, they would have lost the audience. People would have hated them for doing it, feeling that Sheldon had paid too high a price in the end. I tend to agree. The fact is, like it or not, book-lovers tend to be more sophisticated than the average filmgoer. So, it was still an effective scene, even if it did deviate from the source material. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.



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Agent Provocateur
Every other Sunday

Eating the flesh of lesser film geeks since '72.


Other Columns
Other columns by Zombie Boy:

DVDeconstruction: El Orfanato

The LIVE films of George Romero.

The Island: Clone Movie or Cloned Movie?

Oh, Anniba!: The Works of Thomas Harris

Les Trio Infernal: The Films of Nathan Schiff

All Columns


Zombie Boy
Zombie Boy is not a Hollywood insider, just a movie
geek with a big mouth and a strong desire to spew
opinions. His column will concentrate on the things he
feels you need to know about less mainstream cinematic
issues, but probably don't. He strongly encourages
interaction from his readers, just be sure to not put
any digits too close to his mouth.


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