‘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"

With his seminal 1995 film “To Die For,” Gus Van Sant proved what many assumed was an impossibility at the apotheosis of indie filmmaking: A director known for making movies apologetically in the margins of Hollywood (“Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho”) could collaborate with a major studio without the former sacrificing his edge and the latter losing a hell of a lot of money.

But how the Sony/Columbia Pictures release — centered on aspiring small-town TV reporter Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman), who coerces a pair of dim, teen townies to kill her husband — came to be is unto itself a juicy, celluloid-worthy saga.

From the novel that started it all (based loosely on the real-life tabloid drama of Pamela Smart, who was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to kill her husband in 1990), to the A-listers who almost got cast — Meg Ryan, Matt Damon, and Sandra Bullock, for three; to Van Sant’s tricky collaboration with two industry legends (“The Graduate” screenwriter Buck Henry and “Pretty Woman” producer Laura Ziskin) and the dismal test screenings that almost killed the movie altogether, “To Die For” has endured because its collaborators refused to pander to their audience.

The film was also the first American-made starring vehicle for then-breakout Australian actor Kidman, whose embrace of a sociopathic, anti-hero female protagonist — before that was trendy — would set in motion for the future Oscar-winner (“The Hours”) one of Hollywood’s most enviable, enduring careers. And speaking of Oscars, “To Die For” also showcased impressive early turns by recent winners Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) and Casey Affleck (“Manchester By the Sea”); and Van Sant himself would later earn two directing nominations, for 1998’s “Good Will Hunting” and 2008’s “Milk.”

As they mark the upcoming 25th anniversary of the film’s release on September 27, 14 creatives who worked with Van Sant both in front-of and behind the camera reveal what it took to make a killer example of what happens when studio’s risk-taking collides with uncompromising art.

Novel Inspiration

Joyce Maynard, author, “To Die For”: In the summer of 1990, my three children left for two weeks to spend time with their father. I decided to use the time to write another novel. I tend to write quickly, as I had with my first book, ‘Baby Love,’ and my goal was to finish this one in two weeks. But I didn’t know what it was going to be. On day one, I opened the newspaper to see that Pamela Smart had been indicted for conspiring to murder her husband. I’d been transfixed by the media coverage and how she was portrayed as ‘the grieving widow.’ She was very telegenic. It fascinated me. Growing up, I’d watched a lot of TV in order to experience so-called ‘normal life.’ I wanted to be the daughter the Cleavers never had! Only later would I realize the degree to which I had been shaped by those images. So I had those two weeks and wrote ‘To Die For’ in a white heat. It was published two years later in 1992.

LAURA ZISKIN'Spiderman" Film premiere, Los Angeles, America - 29 Apr 2002
Laura Ziskin produced “To Die For” after steering 1990’s ‘Pretty Woman’ to huge success. She would later produce  Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy and co-found Stand Up to Cancer before passing away in 2011.Peter Brooker/Shutterstock

Amy Pascal, then executive vice-president of Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Pictures: My job was to find and fall in love with projects, and lobby to get them made. Laura Ziskin [who passed away in 2011 at 61 after a long battle with breast cancer] had a producing deal with the studio and brought me Joyce’s book. We decided to buy the rights.

Maynard: It was unclear for a while whether a movie would happen. When my kids and I couldn’t afford something I’d say, ‘Let’s wait and see if our ship comes in.’

Gus Van Sant, director : Laura brought the project to my William Morris agent at the time, John Burnham. Buck Henry [who died in early 2020 at 89 after suffering a heart attack] was his client too, which was one of the reasons I’d signed with him. Buck had mentioned to John that he wanted to work with me. So John said, ‘OK, Buck writes, you direct, and Laura produces.’ The budget was around $15 million — a lot for me, but somewhat low for a studio at the time. Sony would split the cost with the Rank Organisation in the U.K., which would do international.

Maynard: I made it known that I wanted to speak with Buck and was gently told, ‘That doesn’t happen.’ The typical attitude of a screenwriter towards the author of a book he or she is adapting is, ‘Stay away.’ It’s antagonistic. But he said, ‘Of course!’ I went to see him in L.A. He was hugely respectful of the novel; we talked a lot while he was writing and he sent me drafts to review. I can’t remember ever once saying ‘I don’t like this,’ but would have felt very free to do so. I loved Buck. I saw him for the last time in 2017. He came to a reading I was doing in L.A. He was in a wheelchair and wearing his baseball cap. I stopped everything to give him a hug.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (1663597a) To Die For (Onset) - 005 Film and Television
Gus Van Sant was an iconoclastic outsider directing his first movie for a Hollywood studio in “To Die For” after making films like “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho.”Moviestore/Shutterstock

Van Sant: Joyce’s book was encased in almost a faux spoken-word documentary format; like a series of testimonials. The tone was dark, which I was used to. But Buck turned it into more of a satirical comedy. He was also a huge student of the media — 24-hour cable news, like CNN, was becoming popular. The Tonya Harding scandal happened while Buck was writing. Court TV had also just become popular. Suddenly you could see people like Woody Allen and Marlon Brando in court on live TV. Buck was very into all of this.

Assembling the Rogues Gallery

Van Sant: Meg Ryan was interested in playing Suzanne Stone and came in for a discussion. She was a very high-priced star at the time. ‘To Die For’ was definitely not like the mainstream work she’d been doing in movies like ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’

Pascal: I’d known Nicole Kidman from making ‘My Life’ with Michael Keaton a few years earlier. She’d call me periodically and say, ‘I really want the part in ‘To Die For.” She’d had her eye on it.

Nicole Kidman, “Suzanne Stone Maretto”: I was fortunate to have started my career in Australia because [‘Mad Max’ director] George Miller’s company, Kennedy Miller, took me under their wings. They created a 10-part miniseries for me called ‘Vietnam,’ another called ‘Bangkok Hilton,’ and then the movie ‘Dead Calm.’ I was in an unbelievable position for a female actor. Then I came to the states and signed with a New York agent, Sam Cohn, who also represented Mike Nichols. I’d go on auditions and was shocked at how few complicated roles there were for women! I got ‘Days of Thunder’ and then ‘Malice’ with Alec Baldwin. But I was like, ‘Where are the art films and idiosyncratic filmmakers like Jane Campion? How do I work with them?’ I knew Gus’ work from seeing ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ at an art cinema in Sydney. Those kind of films were basically my cinematic pull.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (1663595a) To Die For (Onset) - 003 Film and Television
Nicole Kidman says she long wanted to work with the kinds of auteurs who inspired her while growing up in Australia. Gus Van Sant fit the bill.Moviestore/Shutterstock

Van Sant: Other actors came in for Suzanne. Ellen DeGeneres, who didn’t have her sitcom yet, and Patricia Arquette. I thought Patricia was suited for the role, but she had to go to Asia for six months. I said, ‘OK, let’s wait for her.’ Meanwhile Nicole was still pushing Laura and Amy to consider her.

Kidman: By then, I was newly married, madly in love, and wanted to have kids. But I loved ‘To Die For.’ It was so darkly funny; the same crazy-great writing that Buck had done in ‘The Graduate.’ So my agent says, ‘You need to call Gus. Push yourself out of your comfort zone.’ I’d never done that in Australia because I never had to! Sometimes you have to tell directors, ‘I can do this. Give it to me.’

Van Sant: I’d seen Nicole in ‘Dead Calm,’ where she a played a horror-character-under-duress, and the movies she’d done with Tom Cruise. None really indicated that she was right for this movie. (Laughs) But she was so excited and forthright on our call; she said she was destined to play this part. I thought, ‘If she’s this into it, she’ll probably do a really good job.’

Buck Henry'The New Age' Premiere August 30, 1994 Buck Henry. 'The New Age' premiere. Photo®Berliner Studio/BEImages
Buck Henry, adapted Joyce Maynard’s novel “To Die For” and also played the role of Jimmy, Lydia and Russel’s exasperated high school teacher, Mr. Finlaysson. Henry passed away in early 2020.Bei/Shutterstock

Kidman: Some people had gone cold on Gus because of ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,’ like ‘Oooh, don’t work with him.’ But I just liked him. He was cool. I totally believed in him.

Maynard: Nicole was different from how I’d pictured Suzanne; way more beautiful. The character in the book is one of those women who doesn’t know to extend her foundation beyond her jaw line. (Laughs)

Meredith Tucker, then casting assistant to late casting director Howard Feuer: For the roles of Jimmy and Russel, we saw Lukas Haas, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Adrian Grenier, Jeremy Sisto, Johnny Galecki, Edward Furlong, and everyone from [director Richard Linklater’s film] ‘Dazed and Confused,’ which had just come out.

Van Sant: Matt Damon read for Jimmy in L.A. When he left, I remember Laura saying, ‘Wow, that’s a movie star.’ He was really interested, but he was around 24, which concerned us. He said, ‘Let me work on it. I can make myself look 16.’ So we met again, I think in New York. He’d lost weight, which brought more focus to his eyes. He looked closer to 16, but still too all-American. If Suzanne manipulates Jimmy to kill her husband, does it work if the kid looks like a baseball player?

Tucker: I’ve cast a lot of teenager roles, including recently for [a24’s] Eighth Grade, and it makes a huge difference when the actors aren’t 24 playing 16.

'To Die for' - Joaquin PhoenixGTV Archive
Playing Jimmy at 19 in “To Die For” was one of Joaquin Phoenix’s first major film roles after appearing in 1980s movies such as “Space Camp” and “Parenthood,” when he was still credited as Leaf Phoenix.ITV/Shutterstock

Van Sant: Then we heard through the agent grapevine that Joaquin Phoenix wanted to audition. I’d met him when I visited the set of [director Nancy Savoca’s film] ‘Dogfight’ in Seattle [starring Phoenix’s late brother River, who passed away October 1993 and starred in Van Sant’s 1991 film ‘My Own Private Idaho’]. I thought, ‘That’s unbelievable.’ We were all still mourning River.

Tucker: Joaquin was 19 and living in Florida with his family. He came to New York around early 1994 to read. I think Gus still had Matt Damon in his head like, ‘Ok, let’s see if anyone can surpass him.’

Van Sant: Joaquin comes in looking so destitute.

Tucker: It’s still one of the most incredible auditions I’ve ever witnessed; a magic moment and also just so intense because of River. (Note: Phoenix didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

Van Sant: I was sad to not use Matt Damon. He was really responsive and could almost read your mind, but I’d work with him later [in ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘Promised Land’]. But without Matt, we may not have auditioned Casey Affleck for Russel. Matt’s the one who said, ‘You should really read my best friend’s younger brother for that role.

Casey Affleck, “Russel Hines”: I’d fallen in love with theater in high school. After graduation in 1993, I drove out to L.A., found an agent, got a busboy job in Pasadena — I was only 17 — and spent a year auditioning. I didn’t like L.A. and vowed I’d go to college by the end of the year if acting didn’t work out. Then I got an audition for ‘To Die For.’ I was so young and didn’t know the business at all. All I knew was that the guy who’d made ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ was making this movie. I auditioned six times before I met Gus, who made me feel very comfortable.

'To Die for' - Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Alison FollandGTV Archive
Joaquin Phoenix (left) first met 18-year-old Casey Affleck when production on “To Die For” began in Toronto in early 1994; 15-year-old newcomer Alison Folland played their friend Lydia.ITV/Shutterstock

Tucker: Everybody wanted to play [Suzanne’s sister-in-law] Janice Maretto. We saw Sandra Bullock, Janeane Garofalo, Laura San Giacomo, Meg Tilly, Jennifer Tilly, Jamie Gertz, Catherine Keener, Teri Hatcher, Ellen DeGeneres, and Illeana Douglas, who Howard knew from New York.

Illeana Douglas, “Janice Maretto”: I’d grown up in New England ice skating, so I knew the character well. In January 1994, I flew to L.A. for the audition — my first time doing so — and stayed in Santa Monica with a friend. The day before I read, the Northridge earthquake happened. I thought, ‘Well, we’ll have something to talk about at the audition.’

Tucker: We were in L.A. for about six weeks; that was my first-ever earthquake!

Douglas: I was very intimidated in the room: It was Howard, Gus, Laura, Buck — sitting with his feet on a desk and rocking back and forth — and Nicole. And it didn’t go well with the reader. I asked, ‘Can we do it again?’ It was still bad. Then Nicole says, ‘Would you like me to read with you?’ Thank God. But I was still unsure. Afterwards I met up with my friend [the late actor] Roddy McDowall — he was going to photograph me — and I burst out crying. A short film I’d made, ‘The Perfect Woman,’ had gotten into Sundance. So I flew to Park City and decided to forget about the audition. I called my manager from there to check in and he said I’d gotten the part. I was over the moon.

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (788096ha) 'To Die For' - Illeana Douglas ITV ARCHIVE Suzanne (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?
“Cape Fear” alum Illeana Douglas played Suzanne Stone’s disapproving sister-in-law (and amateur ice skater) Janice Moretto in “To Die For.” Then-Sony marketing chief Sid Ganis calls Douglas the movie’s “secret weapon.”ITV/Shutterstock

Tucker: For the role of Lydia, we used Collinge/Pickman casting in Boston. We needed an authentic New England vibe for that character.

Van Sant: Lydia had been hard to cast. Just when we thought we’d found the right person, you felt too sorry for her.

Alison Folland, “Lydia Hertz”: I went to high school in Cambridge down the street from the casting agency. I did theater but wasn’t an ‘aspiring actress’ whatsoever. I heard they were having open calls for 15-year old girls so I went in. They thought that I’d dressed for the role, but I just had on my regular clothes.

Van Sant: Alison seemed so much like the character. We couldn’t tell if she was acting.

Folland: After that, I went camping on the island of St. John with my family. My parents called our answering machine at home — this was pre-cell-phone — and were like, ‘There are all these messages for you from a casting agent.’ I hadn’t told them about the audition. (Laughs)

Tucker: For the parents, it was important to Howard that they look like they were actually related to their kids. Holland Taylor with Kurtwood Smith; and Maria Tucci with Dan Hedaya — they were wonderful. Howard did a brilliant job.

Van Sant: I don’t remember if we met with anyone else besides Matt Dillon for [Suzanne’s husband] Larry?

Tucker: Actually, we read a few guys for that role. (Laughs) Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sizemore, Vincent Gallo, Jason Gedrick, Adrian Pasdar, and Chris Isaak, who Howard had worked with on [director Bernardo Bertolucci’s] ‘Little Buddha.’ But Matt was so good I wonder now why we read anyone else.

Matt Dillon, “Larry Maretto”: I loved Gus from doing ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ and really just wanted to work with him again. I’m also perfectly fine with them not thinking I was perfect for Larry. It’s not exactly a compliment. (Laughs) He’s a good person, but a little deluded. Like, ‘Hello? Look around you, man!’ But I liked that he was so family-oriented. I’d never played a character like that before.

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (788096hq) 'To Die For' - Suzanne (Nicole Kidman) and Tony Maretto (Matt Dillon) ITV ARCHIVE Suzanne (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?
Matt Dillon, who worked previously with Gus Van Sant on 1989’s “Drugstore Cowboy,” played Suzanne’s dim, doomed husband Larry Moretto.ITV/Shutterstock

Tucker: Interestingly we saw a lot of men for George Segal’s cameo [as the TV executive Suzanne sleeps with on her honeymoon]. I remember Edward Hermann accidentally touched my knee during his audition — you’re never supposed to touch the reader — and he was so horrified and sorry. Buck Henry was always slated to play the teacher. I loved the way he said Suzanne’s last name with the hard ‘T’s’ in Maretto. A genius touch. And [Canadian filmmaker] David Cronenberg as the mob guy [who kills Suzanne at the end of the movie] was all Deirdre Bowen, our casting person in Toronto.

Van Sant: At the time, I had no idea Cronenberg acted!

Finding Americana… in Canada

Missy Stewart, production designer: Gus and I had started scouting locations in late 1993. We needed to shoot somewhere that could offer winter weather, which we needed for the end of the movie, then early spring, and also had trees that could be played for fall. That was a challenge. We scouted where the Pamela Smart story took place — Derry, New Hampshire — and some factory towns in Massachusetts, Oregon, and Canada. Ultimately we landed on Port Hope just outside Toronto, which was a good match for New England.

Van Sant: It was similar to the setting of the book, and Toronto had become a destination for Hollywood because of the exchange rate.

Stewart: But Canada can be hard when you’re dressing it to be New England, even for just normal things like food packaging because the writing is French and English. And anytime there’s a scene with fast food, you have to create it yourself or make a run down to Niagara Falls.

Daytime talk-show icon Ellen DeGeneres — seen here in a casting Polaroid — first met with Van Sant about playing Suzanne back when she was an emerging comedic actor, but only officially auditioned for the role of Janice, Larry’s sister.Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Eric Edwards, cinematographer: Gus and I met at Catlin Gabel High School in Portland after he moved there from Kentucky our junior year. We did Super-8 movies together. Years later, I was the D.P. on music videos he made, then ‘My Own Private Idaho.’ Gus is a painter — we also went to art school together [at the Rhode Island School of Design] — so his visuals are very direct and elemental. In working shots out for ‘To Die For,’ we always saw everything as if on a 40-by-60-foot screen. But to a real extent we discovered the look of the film as we went along because there were so many media formats to consider. Nicole addressing the camera on a limbo background of white was one level of a so-called ‘narrative encasement.’ Then we had flashbacks to a younger Suzanne in home movies; then more-recent flashbacks to her falling in love with Larry. We also had the footage of Suzanne’s documentary project on the students; and the PBS/Frontline-style interviews with Wayne Knight and Illeana’s characters, which we wanted on 16 mm and filled with the cinema-verite zooms used so often now in shows like ‘The Office.’ And finally, we needed a very distorted low-fi TV camera on Joaquin’s jail-cell confessional moments.

Van Sant: Most locations were real — the school, the bar, the motel, the ice rink.

Stewart: I loved that motel we found down by the river for Suzanne and Jimmy’s sex scene. I felt like it told the whole story: Her manipulation, his tenderness, the sex, absent parenting, the system failing the kids.

Van Sant: But Suzanne and Larry’s condo and Jimmy’s jail-cell set were built on the sound stages in Toronto.

Future Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”) auditioned to play Janice Maretto just months before 1994’s “Speed” made her a star.Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Edwards: We’d never really worked on larger stages before. We were kind of nervous! The condo was two stories tall, which was ambitious. And anytime one of our actors left or came in the front, ground-level door, we had to consider this giant ‘translight;’ a day/night photograph that was like a 20-by-40 foot Ektachrome slide of the exterior neighborhood mounted on a frame that had to be evenly lit from behind. A lot of this was new to us.

Van Sant: I’d worked with Missy on ‘Drugstore,’ ‘Idaho,’ ‘Cowgirls,’ and eventually ‘Good Will Hunting.’ She made a lot of bold choices for ‘To Die For,’ especially the wallpaper in Suzanne and Larry’s condo. That was intense. (Laughs)

Stewart: The wallpaper, which they’d bought after they got married, represented Suzanne’s crazy brain and swirling madness working overtime. For the overall tonality of the movie, we opted for pale blues, cold grays, dark blues, and teals to foretell her being frozen under the ice at the end.

‘Joaquin, meet Casey’

Affleck: I didn’t know Joaquin before this. He was a nice kid and we got along really well. He’d come from a showbiz family, where I didn’t know anything about anything. We moved into a house together in Toronto and had a blast.

Douglas: This was back when the first thing you’d do was have a huge cast dinner. Matt, Joaquin, Casey, Alison, and Nicole, who was with Tom Cruise, were all there. We actually had time to go over scenes. We were so spoiled.

Dillon: I definitely remember Illeana, Buck, and I drinking a lot of wine in the hotel bar, and smoking cigars. (Laughs)

Affleck: We rehearsed a lot with Nicole. I wasn’t intimidated, I think, because my hopes and dreams weren’t attached to acting at that point. But Gus did encourage me to improvise, and Nicole loved that. She had a great sense of humor.

Future “Big Bang Theory” star Johnny Galecki, then known for ABC’s “Roseanne,” auditioned for the part of Jimmy.Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Kidman: I was still young, too — barely 27! I remember feeling, ‘I wanna hang with you guys,’ but always felt a bit ‘daggy’ around them, an Australian word for ‘geeky.’ I remember during the scenes we shot at the high school I said, ‘My God, you boys are so naughty.’ And Joaquin says, ‘You’re really hot in a stewardess kind of way.’ I’m like, ‘I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.’ (Laughs) They were mischievous.

Affleck: I also got along with Alison right away. She reminded me of my theater friends in high school. She was so good in that role. She’s not at all like that character.

Folland: I’d flown straight from my family vacation to Toronto. My teachers faxed my homework. I lived in a hotel and had to have a guardian at all times. My mom, aunt and older sister all switched off being with me. It was cute.

Worlds Collide: Gus Van Sant and Buck Henry

Stewart: We had a finished script when we started shooting, but Buck was on-location doing rewrites the entire time.

Douglas: The first stuff we shot of mine was the closing scene of Janice skating on the ice. I knew how to skate, but because I was little-miss-actress — and I thought I was going to have to do a lot of actual stunts — I trained for six weeks at a rink in New York before production started. We shot at Lake Simcoe with a small second unit. It was very cold.

Comedian and then-recent alum of “The Ben Stiller Show” Janeane Garofalo also auditioned to play Janice.Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Stewart: We shot all of that in a weekend during pre-production with a small crew. Ice had already started to melt in Toronto. Lake Simcoe was still frozen because it was about an hour north.

Douglas: After Lake Simcoe, we did the documentary-interview scenes inside the ice rink. There was also a lot of improv, which Gus loved — he’s the one asking Janice questions off-camera — but then I’d see Buck, who’d written a very tight script, getting distressed. He had a certain rhythm and cadence where Gus’ approach was more naturalistic. I was like, ‘Hey, let’s do both versions.’ I wanted to please Buck, but also make Gus happy.

Edwards: I think Buck was like, ‘Gus, you’ve gotta get her back on page.’

Dillon: Gus is so confident in his filmmaking style. There’d been a lot improv on ‘Drugstore.’ We’d drive around Portland and stake out characters for hours. But this was different. It was a Buck Henry script and Gus’ first movie he hadn’t written himself. I think Laura Ziskin didn’t completely understand his process, either. She also had a more hands-on approach to filmmaking.

Van Sant: One idea I’m glad Buck did talk me out of: I wanted Suzanne to hand out 8-by-10 glossy photographs of herself to the press the night of Larry’s murder, but Buck thought that was too much. He was right.

Giovanni Ribisi auditioned to play Russel before becoming known for playing Phoebe’s half-brother on “Friends.”Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Affleck: I didn’t know who the hell Buck Henry was before this. (Laughs) It was a blessing and curse to be that ignorant. It was a lost opportunity to pick his brain, but on the other hand, not knowing means you can’t be intimidated. I just remember he laughed a lot between takes.

Edwards: When I saw Buck doing those school scenes with Casey, I thought, ‘My God, this is so over the top.’ But when we saw the dailies it was, ‘Oh, this actually worked.’

Douglas: Buck was such a great storyteller. I’d pepper him with questions about [writing] ‘Catch-22’ and ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ He was impressed at first, then a few days in he says, ‘You can sit next to me, but you can’t ask me any more questions.’ (Laughs)

The Van Sant Experience

Edwards: ‘To Die For’ was very heightened visually. For inspiration we’d watched Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy,’ which has a great shot where the camera is inside a London-flat hallway, descends a staircase, turns 180 degrees and then tracks backward out the front door and into the street. And that’s pretty much the shot we did of Lydia entering the condo where she hesitantly climbs the stairs toward the bedroom where Suzanne and Jimmy are having sex.

Pop singer Chris Isaak had just worked with late “To Die For” casting director Howard Feuer on 1993’s “Little Buddha” when he auditioned to play Larry.Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Kidman: Gus was unbelievably intuitive and loose. It was his idea for Suzanne, when she’s alone in the condo, to stretch and turn around in the living room [to show the passage of time from day to night]. And when Suzanne absorbs just how much she hates Larry — there’s that tunnel-vision close-up of his face — I remember him saying, ‘OK, just keep staring.’

Edwards: The camera did a slow track into an extreme close up on Matt. Then Gus had us do an ‘iris-in’ on Larry’s wide-shot – like at the end of a silent film – which reduced him to a small circle in the center of a dark frame. We had to tear apart one of our studio lights to get that shot.

Curtiss Clayton, editor: I’d started editing in Toronto when shooting started in order to have an editor’s cut or the ‘assembly’ ready as soon as possible after principal photography, which lasted from March to June 1994. This was right when the switch to digital was happening. ‘To Die For’ was actually the last movie I’d cut on film. I was aware immediately — as I was on Drugstore — that this was some of the best material I’d ever worked with.

Edwards: We were keen on shooting quickly. Gus doesn’t do a lot of takes – maybe two, three or four – and then we move on. Nicole might have had problems with that because sometimes that’s just when she was getting good.

Steve Buscemi, who had appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 “Reservoir Dogs,” auditioned to play a cop in “To Die For” — a minor role — because he just really wanted to work with Gus Van Sant.Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Kidman: It was all just pure, wonderful Gus. He also had very clear ideas on how I should look. He had tons of photos of different news anchors and my curly hair did not work. (Laughs) He wanted the lashes, the makeup. He’s very visual.

Van Sant: I think it was actually Laura’s idea to make Nicole’s hair straight and blonde. It was a wig. Her natural hair was cool, but Suzanne needed to be an icy blonde. I think it really affected the performance.

Stewart: We also needed Nicole in a lot of bright, poppy colors to show she’s a fish out-of-water even in her hometown. And very tacky. Everything she did was a little off because, again, she’s a psychopath.

When O.J. Pulled Eyes Off Joaquin…

Kidman: Suzanne’s weather reports were tough for me. I was freaked out doing such long monologues in an American accent. Then for the scene when I’m dancing outside, Gus says, ‘I’m gonna put on ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Would you get out of the car and dance in the rain?’ I was like, ‘Yes, if you give me some champagne!’ So I drank, they turned on the firehoses and I danced for Joaquin. It was freezing. I remember thinking, ‘I’m so embarrassed. He must think I’m such a geek.’ But if it hadn’t felt so easy with him, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I was way too shy. And, I needed champagne.

Jeremy Davies broke out in David O. Russell’s 1994 film “Spanking the Monkey” just months after he auditioned to play Jimmy.Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Folland: I was star struck around Nicole, so it was hard to feel totally comfortable. She was very gracious, but I think feeling that way worked for the character. Like Lydia, I was put into a world I didn’t understand; like a deer in the headlights. The documentary-interview scenes were more in my comfort zone because I’d auditioned with them. I watched a lot of ‘Jerry Springer’ and ‘Sally Jessie Raphael’ back then and felt a strange sense of channeling that I was somebody on one of those shows.

Douglas: In the scene where Matt and I are kidding around behind the bar and he picks me up, somehow my thumb got caught. I said, ‘Oh God, I think my thumb is broken.’ Then came the typical film-crew response: ‘No, it’s not.’ I told Matt, ‘I really did just break my thumb.’ Gus said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I told them to fill the sink with ice and I’d jam my hand in there in-between takes and then go to the hospital. Laura sees the cast later and can’t believe it. There were major discussions about why Janice couldn’t be wearing a cast. Then Gus decides: When Janice hears that Larry is dead and faints, that’s when she breaks her thumb. Unfortunately, my thumb never fully recovered.

Dillon: I do remember something now about a broken thumb! Illeana was a trooper.

Van Sant: I remember a very funny moment when we were doing a wide-shot of Joaquin in the jail-cell. There were bright lights on him, so he couldn’t see us behind the camera. One by one people started leaving the set and for a while Joaquin didn’t realize he was all alone. He was trying to stay in character but asked ‘So are we gonna shoot?’ and nobody answered. He walks into the adjacent room and everyone had gathered around a TV to watch the O.J. Bronco chase on the freeway. Surreal.

Future “Entourage” star Adrian Grenier was also among the throng of young actors who auditioned to play Jimmy.Photos courtesy of Meredith Tucker

Stewart: For the shot at the end where we see Suzanne’s body frozen in the lake: We used a dummy under real ice at first, but it didn’t look good. The ice wasn’t clear enough. So we moved filming into the studio, put bluish makeup on Nicole and sprayed her clothes and hair with ice crystals. I built an etched Plexiglas covering to put over her; it was very claustrophobic. It was about 30 feet long so we could dolly over it. I asked, ‘Are you okay under there?’ She was such a champ. Tour de force.

NEXT: What Happened When Tom Cruise Showed Up On Set

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.