By Steve Newton
Here’s a story I did on the Vancouver-area filming of the 1998 Katie Holmes vehicle Disturbing Behaviour. It wasn’t the worst horror flick I ever did a set-visit for. That would probably be Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.
The X-Files recently deserted Vancouver after five seasons of shooting here, but that doesn’t mean our town is throwing in the towel as far as scary shows go. It still has Millennium, of course, and the city has jumped headfirst into the teen-thriller fray with Disturbing Behavior, directed by David Nutter of X-Files fame.
The $15-million MGM production, which opens on July 22, tells the story of a new kid in town (James Marsden) who discovers something sinister about the local pep rallies and bake sales when he stumbles on the town’s evil method of turning rebellious teens into wholesome overachievers.
At a studio in Burnaby, Nutter—still in his early 30s, and known for helming such freaky X-Files episodes as “Ice”, “Irresistible”, and “Squeezed”—directs a scene set at the secret “treatment centre” where teenage troublemakers are turned into goody two-shoes types. Several doctors in full surgical gear surround a prone woman on an operating table; the area is laid out with a mix of everyday medical equipment and some particularly high-tech, futuristic computer gear.
At one side of the room, four people in executive suits—evidently the shadowy moneymen funding this radical treatment—look on with stone-faced resolve. As Nutter calls “Action”, sinister Dr. Caldicott (Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood) directs a thin flashlight beam into the patient’s eyeball, then the camera pans slowly over to a nearby petri dish containing a small, bloody object.
“Every time one of these kids gets a hard-on they want to beat somebody with it,” says the doc disgustedly, and the edgy, offhand dialogue sounds ripe for the type of hip, comedy-laced horror that Scream scribe Kevin Williamson has helped reinstate of late. Disturbing Behavior screenwriter Scott Rosenberg also knows the value of a chuckle-induced shiver.
“That was certainly something that Kevin discovered,” says Rosenberg, “that for a horror movie to really succeed, especially today, it has to have humour as well. [Scream director] Wes Craven really played the movie straight, yet allowed the humour to live, and I really think that had anybody else done that movie, it might not have been as successful.
“But [Disturbing Behavior] is not a slasher film,” he contends, “and I don’t think it’s as self-reflective as Kevin’s stuff. There’s a lot of dialogue, and these are certainly clever teens who spout some pretty smart words, so insofar as that, the comparison can be made.”
Rosenberg—whose screenwriting credits include Con Air and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead—is adamant that the filmmakers are attempting to give Disturbing Behavior meaning beyond just being a horror film.
“I know that the director feels very strongly about that,” he says, “ ’cause this kid was offered every single horror movie in the world after all his success with The X-Files and Millennium, and he chose this one because the key to the theme of the movie is not really that far-fetched. I think there are some parents that—given the choice to have a kid who plays for the team and gets straight As and will go to Harvard and doesn’t fuck up—would do that, even if the cost was the kid’s humanity.”
To get his take on Disturbing Behavior, the busy but approachable Nutter is tracked down to his trailer, where he chows down on a lunch of rice and fish.
“Scott had a wonderful idea and a wonderful voice for the young characters,” says Nutter between bites. “What I brought to the plate was story structure, my sensibilities about what really takes you from point A to point B to point C to point D. I also felt that what was important was the plausibility, that this can’t be a movie about a science fantasy. The audience has to believe when they watch this movie that this is very possible and very probable. It can happen.
“Hopefully, that will bring impact to the theme,” he adds, “ ’cause I find a lot of teenage movies are somewhat juvenile, and after my years of working with Chris Carter in The X-Files and Millennium, I believe that if you build it, they will come. You have to respect their intelligence, and they’ll respect you.”
While Nutter discusses his philosophy for Disturbing Behavior, there’s a knock on the door, and his old film-school prof, Ralph R. Clemente, climbs aboard. Turns out that Clemente first taught Nutter some 18 years ago at the University of Miami, where Nutter started out as a music major before taking a Super-8 class, getting hooked, and giving up the music angle. He was in a handful of Clemente’s production classes and later became his teaching assistant. The two have stayed close friends over the years.
“I think he’s a major talent,” says Clemente, who coproduced Nutter’s first feature, the 1985 Don Johnson vehicle Cease Fire. “He’s obviously gotten into this genre that’s kind of dark, through X-Files and Millennium, and somehow he feels comfortable in that area. He’s very good at staging scenes and blocking the camera, and he works very well with the actors. Every one of them’s come to me and made a comment to that effect, and that’s obviously very important in directing, the relationship with the actors, being able to get them to perform.”
One actor whose performance will certainly be crucial to the success of this film is 19-year-old Katie Holmes, one of the stars of the hit TV drama Dawson’s Creek. In an abandoned section of the studio, production designer Nelson Coates (Kiss the Girls) has overseen the construction of a small set that is the bedroom of Rachel Wagner, Holmes’s character. It looks like your typical teenage girl’s hangout—there are stuffed animals, baseball trophies, the obligatory computer, and books like Little House on the Prairie. And here’s the CD collection.
Uh-oh. What about this disc called I Hate Myself, by Every Mother’s Nightmare? Looks like Rachel’s no angel after all.
“There’s all these kids who seem to be very perfect,” says Holmes of the film, “and my character is pretty much the antithesis of these kids. She’s the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who’s experienced way too much too young, and as a result kind of puts on this front and has an attitude. She and her best friend Gavin [The Man Without a Face’s Nick Stahl] and this new kid in town, Steve [Marsden], figure out that there’s something that is just not right about these kids. They go and explore the facilities where these kids have been taken, and they’re pretty much trying to stop it.”
Holmes says she was attracted to Disturbing Behavior because her character is very dark, and very different from any of the others that she’s played. And she had other reasons for signing up.
“I knew the director was very good,” she says. “And I thought it was an interesting take on the horror movie, which is coming back and is so popular.”