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‘To Die For’ at 25: An Oral History of the Risky Indie-Meets-Studio Triumph

Director Gus Van Sant, star Nicole Kidman — who almost lost her killer role to Meg Ryan — and a dozen others reflect on the pain and payoff of making art for the masses.

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (788096hr)'To Die for' - Nicole KidmanITV ARCHIVESuzanne (Nicole Kidman) is a weathergirl on a local TV station who longs to be a high flying star on Network television.She marries local boy Tony Maretto (Matt Dillon) whose family are highly suspicious of her true intentions.Her ambition leads her to the local high school where she meets a group of young drop outs.When her husband becomes a hindrance,she seduces one of the group,Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) and persuades them all to murder Tony.But will her in law's Italian background turn out to be more influential than she thought?

Nicole Kidman in “To Die For”

ITV/Shutterstock

Tom Cruise Was There, Too

Van Sant: Tom was around a lot during production.

Dillon: I knew him from ‘The Outsiders’ and always had an affection for him. He and Nicole had rented a house and we all went there one night to watch a pay-per-view fight.

Van Sant: I remember he took flying lessons during the day and was there every night for dailies.

Pascal: In those days, we still properly screened dailies for everyone. When we showed the scene where Nicole danced in front of the car, I’d never seen someone smile harder than Tom did in that moment. He marveled at her talent and was so supportive. His delight with her is indelibly etched in my mind.

Kidman: Right, flying lessons — that’s what he would have been doing! God, how does Gus remember that?

Maynard: I had a cameo in the film as Suzanne’s lawyer. After filming, we all went out in Toronto and Tom taught me how to play pool. Then word got out that he was there, people mobbed the place, and Tom and Nicole were ushered out. But we had a perfect 10 minutes together!

NICOLE KIDMAN AND TOM CRUISEFILM PREMIERE OF 'TO DIE FOR' IN SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - 1996 Divorced 8 August 2001

Nicole Kidman and then-husband Tom Cruise at the Sydney premiere of “To Die For” in 1996. The film made its official debut at Cannes in May 1995.

Profile Press/Shutterstock

Van Sant: Then one day, Tom actually came to set. I was directing and was like, ‘Tom, I thought you didn’t come to set?’ He says, ‘Gus, that was your last shot. You’re done.’ Oh, okay. (Laughs)

Douglas: I still can’t believe I was allowed to see the dailies. Marty [Scorsese] never let us see those!

Danny Elfman Plays Electric Guitar

Van Sant: I’d never worked directly with a composer before, like ‘I give you the film and you come back later with the score.’ For ‘Idaho,’ I’d hired the musicians and sort of done it myself; on ‘Drugstore,’ [musician] Elliot Goldenthal had done it from afar in New York. What I thought would be interesting for ‘To Die For’ was to marry heavy-metal with orchestration. That’s what I’d heard in my head.

Danny Elfman, composer: Around that time, I was living with my girlfriend [‘Edward Scissorhands’ screenwriter] Caroline Thompson in Burbank. I was renovating my house in Topanga Canyon so was staying with her for four months while I finished scoring [frequent collaborator Tim Burton’s] ‘A Nightmare Before Christmas.’ I’d mentioned to her that I was a huge admirer of Gus; that if I ever got the call to work to with him it’d be an automatic ‘Yes.’ She knew him through their mutual agent so she set up a meeting. He told me about ‘To Die For’ and I was like ‘Hell, yeah.’

New York artist-model-musician Vincent Gallo auditioned to play Larry around four years before his breakout film “Buffalo 66.”

Van Sant: Danny was huge. I was surprised he wanted to work on the movie to be honest. After that, we met once or twice a week at his home studio in Topanga while we were editing.

Elfman: Tim Burton usually has me on set when he’s about halfway done shooting so I can see the footage he’s assembled. I’m used to a lot of interfacing with directors. Usually around the rough-cut stage I’ll sit and play music to see what they respond to; almost like a therapy session. But Gus just kept saying, ‘Do your thing.’ At a certain point I realized, ‘Oh… he isn’t going to say yes, no, thumbs-up or thumbs-down.’ So there were moments I had to tell him, ‘Come on, make a choice here!

Van Sant: I didn’t know that it was going to be that involved; I’d never experienced this process before.

Elfman: As I got into the speed-metal-punk part of the score, I felt permission to use my own bad electric-guitar playing; have fun and not give a shit. It was the first time I’d ever done that. Since then, if I ever need bad-sounding electric guitar, I do it myself. Essentially, Gus gave me permission to be bad. (Laughs)

‘How Do We Market This Baby?’

Clayton: I’d left Toronto about a week before shooting wrapped to set up the cutting room in Portland. I finished the assembly cut in early July. The studio never saw that version, which was over two and a half hours; typically, it’s just a starting point for the director’s cut. The studio then sees that cut and that’s when notes and screenings can begin. We worked on the director’s cut in Portland through summer and moved the cutting room to Sony in L.A. after Labor Day. By then we were still following our instincts while also doing the studio’s notes — when we agreed with them. But the movie was over two hours and we were looking for ways to cut it down.

'To Die for' - Nicole Kidman and Joaquin PhoenixGTV Archive

“To Die For” was prescient in its depiction of tabloid-news culture and the now ubiquitous “reality-TV”-style framing of the narrative.

ITV/Shutterstock

Van Sant: We had to lose a few scenes — extra stuff with the parents on the TV show, a big carnival scene and a fight scene between Nicole and Illeana’s characters, which Illeana definitely let me know about when she saw the cut. (Laughs)

Douglas: Ah, it was this great moment. I catch Suzanne throwing away Larry’s clothes. I say, ‘He just died, what are you doing?’ I realize then that she’s killed him and we have a huge fight. It was my only scene with Nicole one-on-one. I was very actor-y and, without telling her, said ‘You fucking cunt! You killed my brother!’ right before camera rolled. When it ended we were like, ‘That was amazing!

Clayton: It certainly wasn’t cut because of Illeana’s performance; you’d never know it was missing because it was part of an entire subplot that was eliminated. Originally, Suzanne and Jimmy go to the carnival, she gets drunk and gets a tattoo above her breast. Afterwards, they go to a hillside, she opens her shirt to show him the tattoo and says, ‘Don’t you want to fuck me?’ And that’s the first time they have sex. Later, in that scene that we cut of Suzanne and Janice fighting, she’s changing her clothes and Janice sees the tattoo; she realizes Suzanne had this other, dangerous side to her. But we decided that it was more impactful if the audience finds out later on in the movie that Suzanne and Jimmy were having sex, which happens in that scene at the condo with Lydia. Sometimes you have to clear a lot of clutter to figure out what works.

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (788096hp)'To Die For' - Suzanne (Nicole Kidman).ITV ARCHIVESuzanne (Nicole Kidman) is a weathergirl on a local TV station who longs to be a high flying star on Network television.She marries local boy Tony Maretto (Matt Dillon) whose family are highly suspicious of her true intentions.Her ambition leads her to the local high school where she meets a group of young drop outs.When her husband becomes a hindrance,she seduces one of the group,Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) and persuades them all to murder Tony.But will her in law's Italian background turn out to be more influential than she thought?

Suzanne (with her beloved Pomeranian Walter) greets the press outside her home the evening of Larry’s murder. Van Sant said he initially wanted her to hand out 8×10 headshots to demonstrate Suzanne’s blind ambition; screenwriter Buck Henry said that was “too much.”

ITV/Shutterstock

Stewart: By the way, we’d rented and set up an entire carnival for that sequence and then got hit by a deluge of sleet, rain, snow and flooding. That’s what happens: The thing you spend the most on doesn’t wind up in the movie. (Laughs)

Clayton: I do think the movie still lacked a dramatic urgency, which we didn’t realize until we started screening it.

Sid Ganis, then head of marketing, Sony Pictures: Was it a comedy? Drama? Murder mystery? We liked what we saw and appreciated that it was odd and quirky, but wondered ‘How do we market this baby?’ It reminded me a lot of the challenge I’d had with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ It sounds like a weird comparison, but that movie also wasn’t what audiences were used to seeing, especially from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. To Die For was similarly unclear.

Clayton: Test screenings were resulting in disappointingly low scores. We had a meeting with Sony executives and they said the audience was having trouble getting into the movie; they didn’t understand that Kidman’s character was a tabloid queen. They let us hire [late Cuban title-designer] Pablo Ferro (‘Midnight Cowboy,’ ‘Dr. Strangelove’) to do a sequence at the beginning to help communicate that theme earlier on.

Elfman: ‘Beetlejuice’ had had a similar problem. His character doesn’t enter the movie until a third of the way into it, so for the first half-hour, the audience had no idea what it was watching. So like then, my job as the composer here was to make clearer in the opening titles what was going to happen.

Van Sant: The titles helped indicate that she was a tabloid celebrity and had done something terrible.

Clayton: The movie was screened for the first time with Pablo’s titles at another audience screening in January 1995. Everyone thought the new cut was vastly better, but the scores barely improved.

Edwards: I also kept hearing ‘Suzanne is so unsympathetic.’ But that’s why we had so much fun with it; we didn’t have to be fluffy and warm. She’s a phenomenal character!

'To Die for' - Nicole KidmanGTV Archive

Creating a marketing strategy for “To Die For” proved tough. Then-studio marketing chief Ganis compared the challenge to the challenge of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

ITV/Shutterstock

Van Sant: [Then president of Columbia Pictures] Lisa Henson says, ‘I don’t know what else we need.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve been editing only within the confines of the script and never taken scenes out of context,’ which had been an order by Laura. I also remember Curtiss telling everyone that he and his wife had visited a theater in Pasadena to see how testers were recruiting people for screenings. He said the guy asked them, ‘Hey! Want to see a romantic comedy starring Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon?’ People thought it was a date movie, but it’s about a woman who kills her husband and then dies at the end. The whole process showed me just how desperate studios can be. (Note: Henson declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Clayton: The studio decided: Just get the thing finished. I had a bit more freedom by this point to move scenes around. Buck’s script, while modular and filled with vignettes, was still written chronologically, starting with Suzanne as a little girl, then her falling in love with Larry, and so on. We got inspired by the format of ‘Citizen Kane,’ where you learn throughout the movie who he was from different people. We liked this new cut. After six to eight weeks of sound editing and mixing, the picture was finished in February of 1995.

Ganis: We did another test screening in Westwood. Studios often hired [the late market-testing innovator] Joseph Farrell to conduct the research. We all went to Hamburger Hamlet while Joe counted the score-cards. He comes in with the results, shaking his head. It didn’t score well — again.

Clayton: People were still just scoring ‘Good,’ which to a studio means the same as ‘Poor.’ They needed more time to absorb a movie like ‘To Die For.’ An action movie, like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ is different; people are hopped up on adrenaline when they score. With this, they needed time to think about it.

Ganis: If you were in the high 70’s, 80’s or 90’s, you were sittin’ pretty. But we were still down in the 30’s. We thought, ‘Holy crap. Maybe we were all wrong about this movie.’ We sat there trying to figure out what to do and Laura says, ‘We need to take this movie to Cannes.’ I said, ‘What? We just bombed here!’ That was Laura: In the middle of a disaster saying ‘Hey, let’s go to Cannes.’ I can still hear her saying it in that kind-of sheepish way, but with real power.

Van Sant: Thankfully, Rank had the international rights and was comfortable with dark comedies; England had practically invented the genre. Another producer on our film, Jonathan Taplin, was connected to the Rank side of the deal and — since they handled Europe — also wanted it to go to Cannes. By this time, Amy [Pascal] had left the company [to help launch Turner Features, but would later return to Columbia Pictures in 1996 as head of production]. And Sid wasn’t sure he liked the movie. I know this because, after Cannes, he said, ‘I really like this movie. And I mean it this time,’ which means when he said he liked the movie before, he hadn’t meant it.

Elfman: Again, did nobody at the studio read the script? It’s astounding how frequently they’re shocked by a film they’ve just made.

Pascal: How can there be such surprise with the final product? Because you fall in love with different parts of the film, but then worry: Is anyone going to go see it? And how do I justify the expense?

Van Sant: At some point, you realize there isn’t just one person making decisions. The studio heads can go out on a limb, but have to answer to their boards and make decisions that can be proven as smart. So apparently releasing a dark comedy is not a smart decision.

From Cannes and into History

Van Sant: I’d never shown anything at Cannes before. They’d rejected ‘Drugstore’ but said yes to screening Tom Cruise’s wife’s movie. (Laughs)

Kidman: At this point I’d only been to Cannes for ‘Far and Away’ and we’d been crucified. I never wanted to go back. I was like, ‘They’re going to shred us. My spirit can’t handle it.’

Van Sant: But they loved it. The New York Times thought it was great. That totally changed how the studio related to the movie and they committed to spending money to release it in the fall.

Kidman: What a wonderful thing it was to go from feeling ‘This is gonna be awful’ to the exact opposite!

Ganis: [Times writer] Janet Maslin’s Cannes piece gave us the ability to begin a marketing campaign and open in the fall. We spent the summer coming up with our trailers, key art, and TV spots [costing around $10 million]. In those days that was all still very important.

American director Gus Van Sant takes a photo of photographers as actress Nicole Kidman watches, before their press conference for the film "To Die For" which is presented in the "Hors Competition" (Out of Competition) category at the 48th International Film Festival in Cannes, France onNicole Kidman, Cannes, France

“We need to take this movie to Cannes,” Laura Ziskin declared at the height of paralyzingly bad test screenings. The risk paid off: Glowing press helped the studio make good on its promise to market and release the film that fall.

Laurent Rebours/AP/Shutterstock

Van Sant: Designing the movie poster is one of the few times the studio can do what it wants to creatively. And there’s always a disagreement. It becomes a shell game: They accept your ideas until the last moment and then say, ‘This is the poster you love, but it only tested 28. This is the poster we love and tested 100.’ But I admit: Posters I like don’t usually help sell the movie.’ (Laughs) ‘The release was cautious — around 200 theaters — but the movie did make $20 million. They made their investment back and I think people liked it.

Pascal: I was so proud of the movie. It was seminal for many reasons. And Laura was my best girlfriend, which is a loss that can never be filled.

Edwards: We learned a lot of new technical skills making ‘To Die For.’ For Gus it also meant getting away from a naturalistic style and more into images that are manipulated. He’d been doing a lot of ambitious stuff before that, but it was nice for once to have money for lights and large telescoping cranes. (Laughs)

Clayton: The movie was significant for me as an editor in terms of understanding montage and what you can do with footage. It’s a classic example of how a film is remade in the cutting room — not because the original material was weak; rather, because it was a screenplay that read well and communicated a certain thing, that was then filtered through a director’s vision, and then random situations happened on set that resulted in footage that demanded its own logic. And as much as Gus and Buck were friends and wanted to work together, their sensibilities were miles apart.

Gus Van Sant said designing the movie poster is one of the few times a studio can exert creative control. In the case of “To Die For,” the result was what he called “a femme fatale” approach to selling the movie.

Sony

Folland: I don’t think I’ve seen the movie since it came out. Hearing the high-fidelity recording of my voice was hard, to be honest. After that, I only worked about once a year until I finished high school; acting was disruptive to my life. In my 20s, I was still fighting being typecast as ‘Lydia.’ I realized later that ‘To Die For’ wasn’t a typical set at all. Everyone got along. I had a small part Gus’ film Finding Forrester, too. He’s remarkable. He really lets actors explore.

Tucker: ‘To Die For’ is still one of my all-time favorite jobs. It really holds up and inspired a lot of the ‘mockumentary-’style narrative framing that’s done so often now. In a lot of ways it was before its time.

Elfman: Since ‘To Die For,’ Gus and I have also done ‘Good Will Hunting,’ ‘Milk,’ ‘Restless,’ ‘Promised Land,’ and ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot.’ He’s gotten much more involved in the music over the years. He’ll take something I’ve written for one scene and use it in another. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we stretched this out, looped it here, and drop it over in this scene?’ Occasionally I’ll say ‘Yes;’ often I’ll go, ‘That’s totally not how I imagined it.’ (Laughs)

Dillon: Larry wasn’t a character I’d dreamed of playing, but it doesn’t have to be that way when you’re working with good people. Nicole’s performance, Gus’ filmmaking, Buck’s script — all undeniably great. And for God’s sake, Joaquin was in this movie!

Stewart: The studio had wanted Meg Ryan. She was the It Girl. But the movie would have been so different.

Van Sant: Ultimately, I think Meg felt she wasn’t really ready for a departure like ‘To Die For’ at that time. It was edgy and not really her image. But I know she regrets passing it up. I know this because she was on the Cannes jury that voted for my [2003] film ‘Elephant’ and told me, ‘I should definitely have done ‘To Die For.’

TRAVOLTA KIDMAN Nicole Kidman and John Travolta share a moment after receiving their awards at the Golden Globe Awards, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Kidman won best actress in a musical or comedy motion picture for her role in "To Die For." Travolta won best actor in a musical or comedy motion picture for his role in "Get ShortyGOLDEN GLOBES, BEVERLY HILLS, USA

Nicole Kidman and John Travolta toast each other after their respective wins at the 1996 Golden Globes for “To Die For and “Get Shorty.”

Mark J Terrill/AP/Shutterstock

Stewart: Nicole did so much with just her eyes in the film. The scene where Joaquin is watching her do the weather and is fantasizing; she’s saying ‘James, James, James’ and they zoom in on her — she was hypnotic. I really thought she deserved an Academy Award, but she didn’t even get nominated.

Kidman: I was disappointed about that. But I did get a fantastic telegram from Sean Penn saying, ‘You were robbed.’ Isn’t that sweet? And I won the Golden Globe, which was lovely.

Maynard: I turned on the TV just in time to see Nicole win [Best Actress in Comedy/Musical]. In her speech she said, ‘There’s someone who never gets properly thanked in a moment like this. Without this person I wouldn’t be up on this stage tonight. The person who created this role for me.’ My children were jumping up and down at this point. ‘I want to thank… Buck Henry.’ (Laughs) That’s OK, I forgive her.

Kidman: Oh my God, that’s so mortifying. I want to thank Joyce now, over and over again. As much as Buck wrote an incredible screenplay, Joyce came up with that character and the tone — all of it.

Douglas: Roddy [McDowall] told me I was just four votes shy of an Oscar nomination for ‘To Die For’ and based on that, I was invited to join the Academy. I also got signed by Jay Maloney at CAA; and I received a congratulatory call from [CAA co-founder] Mike Ovitz, who was Marty Scorsese’s agent at the time. The movie also branded me, in a way, for other roles. Even on ‘Six Feet Under,’ they said, ‘Can you do what you did in ‘To Die For?’’ It was a life-changing job.

Ganis: ‘To Die For’ certainly launched Nicole’s career as a lead, but I do think Illeana was a secret weapon.

Affleck: Sometimes you look back on movies and realize the best parts were the relationships you began. Joaquin’s sister Summer would eventually become my wife. And I’ve worked with Gus four times. And I remember when he’d read about half of ‘Good Will Hunting’ he called and asked, ‘Are you related to this guy, Ben? I sort of like this script.’ (Laughs)

Kidman: I’d love to work with Gus again. I’ve tried to support auteurs throughout my career. We have to fund and support filmmakers with all the power and clout we can spare. And it’s all only gotten harder. We’d never be able to make ‘To Die For’ today. Also, Suzanne’s line in the movie, ‘You’re not anybody if you aren’t on TV’… talk about a cultural premonition.

Van Sant: I love that Nicole points to the movie as a highlight. And making something with Buck Henry and Laura Ziskin was an interesting experiment! I only remember good things now. The movie was a great thing to be part of.

Maynard: Most people didn’t even know that ‘To Die For’ was a book first. It wasn’t a best-seller and ending up going out of print. Whenever I’d look for it in a bookstore, it was always in the ‘Mystery’ section. But it wasn’t that; if anything, it was a mystery about human nature. I think the movie has endured because when a woman is ambitious, it’s one of the worst things she can be. There’s also an eerie scene in the book where Suzanne muses about who should play her in the movie version of her life. She says, ‘Tom Cruise’s wife would be good.’ In fact, when I first met Nicole she said, ‘Wow the studio made a special edition of your book just for me!’

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