Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Since E! will never do a True Hollywood Story on VOLUNTEERS...

Yesterday’s post sparked a number of VOLUNTEERS questions. So here’s some more backstory.

John Candy had done SPLASH with Tom Hanks and the studio thought it would be great to pair them again. As conceived, Tom Tuttle from Tacoma was a short weasely guy. But we gave the script to Candy telling him we’d be happy to rewrite to accommodate him. He took the role and said don’t change a thing. John did every word exactly as scripted. One of my greatest moments as a writer was watching ESPN Sportscenter a few years ago when Washington State was in the Rose Bowl. They showed a shot of the crowd and the commentator said “I think I saw Tom Tuttle from Tacoma”.

My other highlight was getting the great Chick Hearn to do the basketball announcing. He did it all off the top of his head, perfect, one take.

The entire film was shot in Mexico, including the scenes at Yale.

It opened in Los Angeles at the Pickwood Theatre on Pico Blvd. It was a classic old theatre. Following our run the entire block was torn down to make way for the Westside Pavilion shopping mall. Not many movies can literally close a theatre. Ours is the first to close a theatre AND a bowling alley.

From our very first draft we had a scene where Lawrence Bourne III (Tom Hanks) takes the first step in disarming idealistic Peace Corps volunteer, Beth (Rita Wilson). She’s discouraged and homesick and he gives her a Coke -- a modest gesture at best but under the circumstances huge. There was no product placement intent. We were just looking for a device to help thaw their relationship. Three studios later VOLUNTEERS wound up at Sony/Tri-Star, which then owned Coca Cola. You can’t believe the shit we got for that scene. Yeah, we’re whores but we’re not taking the rap for that one.

My favorite line: “It’s not that I can’t help these people. It’s just that I don’t want to.”

Julie O. asked about the Burmese Prince. There’s a scene where Peace Corps supervisor/boy scout/CIA agent John (Tim Thomerson) gives Beth a small gift to show his affection. We wanted the gift to be a little off-center to signal to her that this guy may be a little weird. We discovered that there were these small Burmese statues that had huge penises. The perfect gift from any psychopath.

My partner, David and I were on hand for some of the editing, watching on a small movieola. There’s a point in that scene where the director had inserted a close up of the statue. We said we didn’t think that was such a good idea. He argued that the audience wouldn’t get the joke if they only saw the statue in a master. Later that week we had a test screening. When this GIANT close up of a penis filled the entire screen the women in the audience gasped and shrieked. David and I had to leave the theatre we were laughing so hard. Needless to say, the close up came out.

Other finalists for the part of Beth: Phoebe Cates and Kirstie Alley.

The evil war lord was Chung Mee which was the name of a Chinese restaurant on Ord Street in downtown LA that I used to frequent until health inspectors closed it down.

VOLUNTEERS was our first feature assignment. We did it for WGA minimum for a small company and a producer just getting started in the business, Walter Parkes. Today Walter is the President of Amblin Entertainment for Steven Spielberg and has produced a ton of great movies including GLADIATOR and MEN IN BLACK. He came to us with the basic idea – preppy joins Peace Corps to skip a big gambling debt. Walter’s college chum Keith Critchlow had that original notion and thus received story credit, which is only fair.

The initial tone was more of a dramedy along the lines of MASH. After two drafts it just wasn’t happening. We all decided to just pull out the stops and make it a rollicking comedy. But the company had no money for an additional rewrite. David and I agreed to do one more major draft for free so the project wouldn’t die. It was from that draft that the project really took off.

At an invited screening a friend of Walter Parkes came up to him in the lobby, took his hands, and said reassuringly, “Oh Walter, we love you anyway.”

We got a spectacular review in the New York Times, great reviews in TIME and NEWSWEEK, so-so in the LA Times and the LA Herald Examiner called us “Call Me Buana racists”. And I had to pay a quarter to read that review.

One day this weekend I'll post two contrasting reviews.

For whatever reason VOLUNTEERS always gets good ratings. It invariably airs during sweeps.

I’ve seen the DVD sell for $1 at Osco.

I can’t watch the movie without missing John Candy and marveling over just what a comedy genius he was.


Unknown said...

I was just a kid when John Candy died, but I cried. Him and Phil Hartman are probably the only two celebrity deaths that really got to me.

Anonymous said...

I did what turned out to be John Candy's last interview on the set of WAGON'S EAST in Durango Mexico a few weeks before he died.
He had been ill and had flown back to LA for some kind of treatment, then back to Mexico.
It was an awful location in the middle of nowhere, hot, dusty. Oddly, he chose to stand while I interviewed him rather then use a director's chair (this was for a behind-the-scenes piece on the film which was shot on video).
He didn't look well and didn't have a lot of energy but agreed to the interview and never complained.
What I most recall was the fact that he was a VERY large man ... and his horse was specially chosen and also VERY large ... to support him.
Sweet man who was so gifted and left as way too early. May he rest in peace.

Julie O'Hora said...

Thanks, Ken, that was fun. I'm jonesing to see the movie, now -- maybe I'll find the DVD somewhere for $1, too.

(For the record, I didn't only ask about the Burmese Prince. I was also interested in the Coke whoring, if you recall.)

More John Candy stories, please. Just remembering his face makes me smile. I doubt there was an unkind bone in that big body.

By Ken Levine said...

Hi Julie O,

John and I formed a bond a couple of years after VOLUNTEERS because he was a big Toronto Blue Jays fan and I became the broadcaster for their AAA team in Syracuse. You're right. He could not have been sweeter, kinder, or funnier.

Anonymous said...

amen re john candy. my wife and i just plowed through the first two SCTV box sets and it's just astonishing how good he was. i'll have to revisit VOLUNTEERS, haven't seen it in years but i seem to remember thinking it was good when i saw it in the theater... hmm, maybe a visit to osco is in order.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Ken-- have you picked up the latest issue of Vanity Fair? I know you do!

Random Commenter said...

I also loved the “It’s not that I can’t help these people. It’s just that I don’t want to.” line -- a priceless inversion of the standard cop-out.

My other favorite moment is just before that, when Hanks boards the plane and the happy-hippy passengers are all singing "If I Had A Hammer" (or was it "Michael Row The Boat Ashore"?), and Hanks says: "So this is hell." Love, love, love that! One of my all-time favorite movie moments.