By Steve Newton
If somebody asked you what Mark Wahlberg’s first film was, I bet you wouldn’t know it’s The Substitute. I doubt many folks have seen The Substitute. Heck, I haven’t even seen it–and I spent hours on a Vancouver set doing interviews for a Fangoria story when it was shot here back in 1993.
It was a TV movie, mind you, which makes the chances of seeing it even slimmer. And even if you did happen to catch the broadcast–or view it later on VHS–you might not have recognized Wahlberg because he was still known as Marky Mark.
Covering The Substitute was not a highlight of my journalism career, but I was into it because the director was Martin Donovan, whose 1988 thriller Apartment Zero I loved. And it also starred Amanda Donohoe, that giant-worm-worshipping babe from The Lair of the White Worm, so there was that.
Anyway, here’s a truncated version of the set-visit piece I wrote for Fango, which appeared in its October 1993 issue, the one with Return of the Living Dead 3 on the cover.
When the makers of The Substitute went looking for a Vancouver high school in which to film their USA Network movie about a murderous teacher, they thought they’d found an ideal one in Kitsilano High. But after production crews had already built sets to match the location, and the American flag was ready to go up the school’s flagpole (the film is set in the fictional town of Baker Springs, Missouri), a Vancouver School Board official came across a copy of the script and found it full of sex and violence. Before you could say “blood ‘n’ guts” the powers that be nixed use of the school. Luckily, the explicit draft that caused all the fuss was not the actual shooting script–or so the filmmakers explained to the school board, anyway. After much pleading on their side, shooting was allowed to proceed.
“What they saw was the script that I turned down when I was offered the movie the first time around, “says director Martin Donovan, puffing on a cigarette in his trailer in the school parking lot. “That script read like, ‘She seduces this guy, and she goes and kill this teacher and this student.’ But for the actual murders themselves, one doesn’t have to show every detail, with the throat slit open and the blood gushing out. You play on the eyes of the characters, and that’s when it becomes truly scary, because you know these people.”
Anyone who’s seen Donovan’s classy 1988 thriller Apartment Zero would certainly doubt that the Argentina-born director is the type to leap at the prospect of making a run-of-the-mill slasher flick. The exploitative elements of The Substituteactuallly threw Donovan for a loop when producer David Kirkpatrick–who was then president of the Paramount Motion Picture Group–offered him the David S. Goyer script two years ago.
“I just couldn’t understand why they wanted me to direct, it, ” he says, “because I thought it was going to be one of those slasher movies. But I had a meeting with David and he said he wanted to bring in someone who was not a genre director, and let him make the movie his own way. That was absolutely wonderful for me, because there was an element of the story that I found fascinating. It’s about identity. It’s about a woman who’s an extraordinary teacher, who’s capable of influencing her pupils and–even though she has never been outside that tiny town in the Midwest–talking about the world. But when she discovers that her husband has been having an affair with one of her students, her entire world collapses, she has a breakdown and she consequently kills them.
“The intellect of this woman is such a specific kind that she gets away with it,” Donovan continues. “She fakes her own death, and one year later reappears in another state, in another school, under a different identity. And what she has to battle is the fact that the evil she acquired when she killed her husband and that girl is still inside her. She has never been punished; she has never confessed or exorcised all of this stuff inside her. So when she finds elements coming up against her that may stop her from doing exactly what she wants to do–which is to reconstruct her life–her darker side forces her to do things that the good side rebels against.”
Inside one of Kits High’s locker-filled hallways, Donohoe (playing teacher Laura Ellington) and co-star Dalton James (as student Josh Wyatt) are filming one of The Substitute’s climactic scenes. As James creeps cautiously about the darkened hall, obviously keeping an eye out for the deranged sub, Donohoe quickly throws open a nearby classroom door and asks distantly: “What are we gonna do now, Josh?” The query encourages James to hightail it down the hall, and Donohoe’s character misses the opportunity to wield the ax she’s confiscated from a nearby fire-extinguisher case. With nary a drop of blood in sight, this sure doesn’t look like the type of flick to get a school board member’s dander up.
Although she has previously portrayed a sexy, often-naked vampire in Ken Russell’s 1988 horror sendup The Lair of the White Worm and costarred in the British thriller Paper Mask, Donohoe wouldn’t grant Fango a few minutes of her time. Maybe her more recent, respectable role as attorney C.J. Lamb on TV’s L.A. Law has gone to her head. But Donovan offers to talk–in glowing terms–about his star.
“I’ve known Amanda for a long time,” he says. “I knew that she was only known in America for L.A. Law, but I had seen her do some spectacular work–Lair of the White Worm, but also Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway and The Rainbow, another Ken Russell movie. And I knew that within the limitations we had, she would be able to build up the different layers of the character, and stick to it. I mean, if this character fails, the movie has no sense, because it’s an X-ray of the brain of a woman who’s had a horrific breakdown.”
When executive-producer Kilpatrick takes his place in the interview chair he relates that the initial idea for The Substitute came about during a meeting a couple of years ago with Brandon Tartikoff, then chairman of Paramount. At the time, he reports, they were looking for a, well, substitute to take over for the studio’s waning slasher star.
“We had had a great deal of success at Paramount over the years with the Friday the 13th movies,” explains Kilpatrick, “but we had basically depleted it–we had gone as far as we could with old Jason. And Brandon wanted to find a way to replace the Friday series, so he came up with the notion of doing a psycho substitute teacher.
Like Donovan, Kirkpatrick is also thrilled to have Donohoe portraying the ticked-off teach. “When Martin and I were talking about who would star, we needed someone who was attractive and powerful, but also really intelligent, and Amanda’s got that in spades. She’s a very smart cookie and that comes across on the screen. She’s giving a performance that is akin to Maggie Smith from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets Anthony Perkins from Psycho. It’s very rich.”
The producer was also impressed by the performance of The Substitute‘s most unlikely co-star: 22-year-old rapper-turned-Calvin Klein underwear model Marky Mark, who actually managed to keep his trousers on when he was supposed to.
“Everyone was surprised by Marky,” says Kirkpatrick of the fledgling actor, who plays a student who becomes a target of Miss Ellington’s wrath. “We had heard stories, and we had read the press, and I’m sure everybody was a little concerned about him coming up here. There was a lot of whispering in corners, etc., about a sort of arrogance they believed he would bring. But everybody was blown away by how professional and gracious he was.
“Marky is a natural performer,” he continues. “He’s worked in videos and on the concert stage, so all he had to do was bring that natural presence down to camera range.”
Director Donovan seconds Kirkpatrick’s belief that Mark’s debut performance in a feature-length project bodes well for his future in movies–and not just as a walk-on murder victim.
“He is already an actor with an enormous instinct,” says Donovan, “and that was a big surprise. I knew that he could act–otherwise he wouldn’t have been in the movie–but I didn’t know how he was going to integrate himself into the existing family atmosphere. And he was extraordinary.”
I guess the makers of The Substitute were right about “Marky Mark”, who dropped that name a year later when he made his big-screen debut as Mark Wahlberg in the Danny DeVito comedy Renaissance Man. A lucky 13 years after The Substitute he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in The Departed.
Who’da thunk it?