By Steve Newton
One of the most enjoyable set visits I did during my 13-year tenure with Fangoria was for Needful Things, the adaptation of Stephen King’s 1991 novel. In December of ’92 I journeyed out to North Vancouver and got the scoop on the movie, with much help from the delightful duo of Canadian comedian-actress Valri Bromfield and New Yorker Amanda Plummer–who would blow me away two years later with her role in Pulp Fiction.
I would also like to thank Max von Sydow, the original Exorcist, for the interview he gave me at the time.
I have no thank you for Ed Harris, who refused to be interviewed either in person or on the phone. I really wanted to talk to him, too, since I was so impressed by his heartwrenching performance in Jacknife a couple of years earlier.
Not sure what his problem was.
Here’s a shortened version of the story that ran in Fangoria #125, the one with Jason Goes to Hell on the cover.
Of all the character conflicts that Stephen King builds in his epic 1991 novel Needful Things, the most volatile and brutal takes place between sweet but strange widow Nettie Cobb and boorish housewife Wilma Jerzyck. In the book, satanic shopkeeper Leland Gaunt pits the women against each other in a vicious rivalry that leads to a bloody mutual murder on a Castle Rock street corner.
In the upcoming film version, due for release by Columbia Pictures this summer, Nettie (Amanda Plummer) and WIlma (Valri Bromfield) end their battle in a fall from the second story of Wilma’s farmhouse, fixed together by the kitchen implements with which each other has mortally wounded the other.
It isn’t the first time that violence has produced no winner in the world of Stephen King.
Thanks to some careful scheduling by Needful Things publicist Marilyn Heston, Fangoria’s set visit to the Castle Rock Entertainment production falls on the same day that her husband, Fraser Heston, is filming the bloody climax of the Cobb/Jerzyck feud. Offering her umbrella against a torrential December rain, an anonymous Needful Things staffer leads your trusty correspondent through the mazelife buildings of North Shore Studios to Soundstage #6, where comedian/Saturday Night Live staff writer Bromfield is seated at a table, having a blood-red manicure done in preparation for the scene. Sitting close by is Plummer, inspecting the work done on her own hands.
“It’s not bloody enough, is it?” she laughs. “I want more blood.”
“That’s the trouble,” Bromfield informs Fango. “Our fight scene is so fast that we don’t get to splatter blood on each other.”
“It’s more exchanging blood,” adds Plummer, “because we do inflict wounds…constantly.”
For actresses who will shortly be required to call up the deepest hate and anger toward each other, Bromfield and Plummer are yukking it up like schoolgirls. They cheerfully offer to guide Fango on a quick tour of the farmhouse, built under the watchful eye of production designer Douglas Higgins, a Vancouver native who also worked here on Stephen King’s It (and whose credits include a stint as assistant art director on The Exorcist). A plywood staircase leads up to the second-floor bedroom area of the rustic Jerzyck home, where Bromfield points to a window across the room.
“We go through that window, the two of us…” she says.
“In a mutual death grip,” interjects Plummer.
“…and after she’s dead, when the police come, I think she does one of those great Stephen King moves.”
“Oh, I hope so,” Plummer adds again. “I don’t want to die right away. I like that extra sputter of blood, when they think people are dead, and there’s just this move.”
On the way back down the stairs, Bromfield offers a little background on how she scored the plum role of Wilma.
“It’s funny,” she says. “The casting woman phoned me and said, ‘Valri, I met you at a party, and there’s this role of a mad turkey farmer I thought you might be interested in.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute. You met me at a party and you think I’d be good as a madwoman? How was I behaving?’ She said, ‘No, no–I just thought you could do it.’
“So I came in, read for Fraser, and he said, ‘Great’,” Bromfield continues. “Actually, they wanted a bigger woman, ’cause in the book Wilma is described as massive. So I put on weight, and I’ve got this [pokes at her belly]. ‘Cause you have to have some…I mean, I can’t stand it when women don’t look mean and tough, ’cause we’re just as mean as guys are.”
Once she landed the role, Bromfield undertook some unusual research to play this “mad turkey farmer”. “When I was trying to figure out how to play this woman, I went to bingo games,” the actress reveals, “’cause I wanted to see really bitter women. And I saw it in their eyes. They’d say ‘shit’ when somebody said ‘bingo’, and they’d be smoking all the time. They’d be all right at the start of the game, and then they’d just deteriorate. And it’s that feeling that Wilma has, that she never got nothin’, and she’s living in the kinda hopeless existence.”
Plummer isn’t quite as talkative when it comes to outlining her Nettie Cobb character, who is depicted in King’s book as a paranoid killer with a good heart. “I’m not good at talking about characters,” says Plummer, sounding a bit like the timid secretary she played as Robin Williams’ love interest in The Fisher King. “I’m pretty humdrum and dull when it comes to that.”
Both actresses have good things to say about director Heston, having already undergone several weeks of filming with him in Gibsons, B.C., a small Sunshine Coast town of 2,500 that was home to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s longest-running series, The Beachcombers.
“He’s great,” Bromfield praises. “He’s very intelligent, kind and careful. But I guess he has to be careful. He could have killed…how many people were standing on the pier the night they blew up the store?”
“I don’t know,” Plummer answers, “I was in the motel. But I felt the explosion. My cat turned into a long stringbean, the way animals do in earthquakes and stuff. Her body elongated and then her neck became as long as my arm. It’s amazing to watch animals like that.”
“She really loves animals,” nudges Bromfield, “and her dog gets skinned in this movie.”
“That’s right,” counters Plummer, “so I’m not going to see this film. I’m not going, that’s it.”
While crew members scramble around the set, Heston takes a break and provides a quick rundown of the plot of his debut feature film. “Needful Things is a morality tale in a way,” he says. “It’s about good and evil, and it stars the devil, played by Max von Sydow. He’s known in this story as Leland Gaunt, and he moves into Castle Rock, Maine, and opens up an antique shop. In this shop you can acquire anything you want, anything you need. Whatever it is, he can provide it for you. He has this magic basement that he goes down into, and he comes back up with just the thing you need, whatever that might be.
“But the price you have to pay is not in cash,” smiles Heston, “and you can’t use American Express. He requires you to perform a deed or a prank, which usually has something to do with someone else–usually it’s someone you don’t even know. You have to go and break somebody’s windows with some green apples. You don’t know that that person has a beef with somebody who always cook with green apples. That person thinks the other person did it, so immediately they’re in a blood fued which you have very little to do with, except that you did the initial deed.”
“That’s called ‘crosswiring’,” the director continues. “Gaunt crosswires everybody in town. And by the time he’s done, he’s got them literally rioting. But Sheriff Pangborn, played by Ed Harris, is the one man who doesn’t succumb. He is almost drawn into it, but his self-appointed mission is to try and stop the madness, although he can’t pin anything on Leland Gaunt because he hasn’t broken any laws.”
Although he counts himself lucky to have secured the job of directing a single high-profile King project, Heston says he’s be happy to join Lewis (Cujo, Cat’s Eye) Teague, Rob (Stand By Me, Misery) Reiner, and Mary (Pet Sematary movies) Lambert as the only filmmakers to helm more than one King-inspired film so far. Unlike some high-and-mighty industry types, he sees nothing wrong with the pursuit of celluloid scares.
“I just don’t want to be restricted to them,” he says, “because in a way, horror films, and genre films of any type, are very specific. They’re finicky and they’re picky. I mean, if you watch the scene we’re doing here, we’re revealing a woman who sneaks up on another woman. She’s about to try and kill her, and she has to be revealed in the lightning flash at just the right moment. It can be very creative, but it’s very specific. They have to hit the marks just so at exactly the right moment, so there’s very little room for acting.”
Soon Heston is called away to oversee rehearsals of the scene he’s just mentioned. While he and Fango watch the action through a video monitor, Bromfield storms into the farmhouse pantry, cursing, and grabs a meat cleaver. As she steps back she meets Plummer in the doorway, and as lightning flashes, the two exchange pleasantries.
“You killed my dog, you bitch!” shouts Plummer. “You broke my microwave, you crazy f**k!” screams Bromfield, raising the cleaver to strike. Thankfully, Heston calls “cut” and the action freezes before the blade finds a home in Plummer’s forehead. “Isn’t that a charming scene between two ladies?” quips Bromfield as she readies herself for another take.
The job of creating the carnage between these two sweeties–as well as Needful Things’ other gory bits–falls to Vancouver makeup FX specialist Tibor Farkas, whose previous credits include Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and Omen IV: The Awakening.
“They’re not really going for blood and guts in the traditional Fango sense in this film,” he says, “but it is accented with various nasty bits. Aside from the old hatchet in the head, the skinned Rottweiler is probably the premiere gore piece in the show. It’s gonna be a pretty darn accurate bit of business.”
In addition to the butchered dog, Farkas is providing a set of severely twisted, arthritic hands for yet another of Gaunt’s victims, cafe proprietor Polly Chalmers, played by Bonnie Bedelia of the Die Hard films. As for Gaunt himself, there wasn’t much to be done, makeup-wise. You won’t see horns or a point tail on this year’s Satan.
“We weren’t going for a true devil look,” says Farkas, “because Max, being the performer that he is, can do that just through his facial expressions and dialogue. He’s a hellluva guy. But just to enhance that feel, we provided some devilish fingernails and a set of teeth for him, just subtle touches.”
When the film is released, much of the credit for its strengths–or blame for its weaknesses–will no doubt fall at the feet of screenwriter W.D. Richter. Best known for directing The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and cowriting Big Trouble in Little China, Richter was handed the job of whittling King’s hefty novel down to movie size after Castle Rock decided not to go with a previous draft by Carrie and It scripter Lawrence D. Cohen.
“Oh God…I shudder thinking of how I had to go about it,” moans Richter of his King-sized job. “It’s really daunting if you try to be too systematic about it, because you just start to think it can’t be done and probably should be a miniseries. So I just started at the front and tried to economize as I went along. If a condensation occured to me–a way to combine or skip over something–I’d take it as it came. I worked through a long first draft, which was still considerably shorter than the book, just to feel it was starting to be a movie. And than that would get chewed over by everybody concerned, and we’d go at it again.”
“I didn’t like the size of Needful Things,” Richter continues, “but I liked the fact that the characters pushed the action a lot–that appealed to me enormously. And I thought Gaunt was really well-written. It was fun to try and work him carefully into a tighter structure.”
One of the main changes Richter made from the book was to take Gaunt out of his shop and show him around town. “I loosed him from his store for a couple of reasons,” says Richter. “I thought it would be potentially visually boring and constricting to have to keep returning to the shop and photographing him across the counter. King has more ability to make each scene sound different on the page, because you’re inside Gaunt’s head and thinking his thoughts. But I was very concerned that we would be in the shop over and over again. And Peter Yates [the executive producer and original director] felt the same way.”
Given his previous screen credits, one might expect Richter to be more of a SF buff than a horror fanatic. Certainly, the fact that he had never read any of King’s novels before scoring the Needful Things writing job makes it appear that way. But Richter–who also scripted the 1979 Dracula and directed Castle Rock’s frozen-in-time adventure/drama Late for Dinner–claims he has a large place in his heart for horror.
“Oh definitely,” he chuckles. “Actually, I almost like horror more than science fiction. I grew up on scary movies.”
This confirmed horror fan, however, remains noncommittal when asked how he thinks Max von Sydow, the original Satan-battling Exorcist, will do in his new role as the Prince of Darkness himself. “I don’t know,” is Richter’s honest-sounding reply. “I’ve never met Max. It’s gonna depend on what he and Fraser concoct. It’s a whimsical part. It’s scary, but it requires a certain sense of delight from the devil–he’s not just ominous and serious about what he’s doing. So we’ll see.”
Judging by von Sydow’s reaction when asked about his approach to the evil Gaunt character, Richter’s concerns may be for naught. “It’s a fun part to play,” informs the 63-year-old actor, “and I’m enjoying myself very much. I think it’s a very intelligent concept of the devil. And I’m trying not to give him away too early, but when the time comes…”
And what if that old von Sydow charm comes across so strong that it wins filmgoers over to Gaunt’s side of things? Is there any chance that the crowds viewing Needful Things may start rooting for Satan? “I don’t know,” ponders von Sydow, who played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
“But I hope not.”