Classic Couple Interview – Julie Salamon and Ben Mankiewicz on The Plot Thickens, Season 2: The Devil’s Candy
On June 29, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) releases The Plot Thickens, Season 2: The Devil’s Candy, the second installment of its award-winning podcast. This time TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and author Julie Salamon go behind the scenes of the infamous 1990 film The Bonfire of the Vanities.
A best-selling 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities satirized greed, ambition, social climbing, narcissism, racism, and politics amidst a New York City backdrop. An unforgiving social commentary with no likable characters, the story tempted Hollywood to adapt the novel for film. And so, Tom Wolfe sold the film rights, cashed a check for $750,000 and distanced himself from the project which landed at Warner Bros.
Peter Guber, the original producer of the film, hired three people for the project: writer Michael Cristofer, director Brian De Palma, and star Tom Hanks, all decisions deemed final. Stars Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith and Morgan Freeman joined the cast, and the production was supported by industry pros, many of whom had a history working on Brian De Palma films. Also added to the production was journalist Julie Salamon to whom De Palma granted unprecedented access to all aspects of the making of the film adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities.
From initial casting all the way to the theater premiere, Salamon, unnoticed by everyone, noticed everything. She documented every aspect of the $47 million production on set, off set, and in the back office taking notes and recording conversations. The film, released in December 1990, grossed just $3.1 million in its opening weekend, less than a third of what was expected for it to be a hit. More so it was critically panned. A year later in 1991 Salamon published a best-selling book The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco detailing what went on in the making of what became a legendary Hollywood fiasco.
Last year, 30 years since the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Salamon uncovered in storage her notes for the book along with a treasure trove of recordings from her time behind the scenes of the movie. These recordings featuring the De Palma and the film’s cast and crew punctuate Salamon’s commentary about the film in The Plot Thickens, Season 2: The Devil’s Candy podcast.
Classic Couple recently spoke with Julie Salamon and Ben Mankiewicz about this unique podcast project.
Classic Couple: The 2002 edition of your book contains an afterword in which you recap a “10 years after” lunch with Brian DePalma. You quote him as saying of The Bonfire of the Vanities, “Maybe twenty, thirty years later I’ll be able to look upon it like an old photograph. But not yet.” It is now that 30-year mark, Brian is aware of this project, but doesn’t want to revisit the film. From what you know of Brian DePalma, do you think The Bonfire of the Vanities will ever become that old photograph he will reminisce about?
Julie Salamon: Honestly, I think it will never be easy for him to look back on this film, and unfortunately, I think the reason is because of The Devil’s Candy. Brian’s whole career has been up and down, and he’d be the first person to say that. But this one became a particular down because of my book. Believe me, for me that’s been an agony because I really respect him and like him so much. And yet this thing that I am also really proud of, which is my book, is the thing that is the perpetual thorn in his side. Having said that, when I told him about the podcast, he was excited about it. He loved the first season of The Plot Thickens. I just think it’s hard for him. I don’t know, maybe at 50 years when he’s very old, but not yet.
Classic Couple: What is your vantage point reflecting on this work at 30 years?
Julie Salamon: Looking back at the film and what happened while it was being made, I think if anybody has worked in any kind of organization nothing there should surprise anyone about the kinds of conversations people have, the way people make decisions. The ups and downs and the intensity of that project and looking back on it, I think I feel more compassion for everybody, including myself, about how crazy the whole thing was. But also, I feel incredibly poignant because there is a kind of poignancy to it and nostalgia for me. To see Tom Hanks as a 33-34-year-old and Melanie Griffith as a young woman going through struggles professionally, privately there is something really incredible to me about it. To hear their voices on those tapes that I had no idea I even had, it has been just a remarkable experience to look back on it. I feel good about it to be honest and that’s a nice feeling, because sometimes you don’t.
Classic Couple: In 1990, you describe the devil’s candy as “that impossible, expensive, possibly monumental thing” and question that Hollywood would not learn its lesson to scale back. Flash forward 30 years, do you think Hollywood still feeds on the devil’s candy?
Julie Salamon: Yes, I do. I think our whole society does to a certain extent. But what’s different now in a very positive way are all these other outlets. There are so many opportunities via television, low-budget movies, your phone for people to do all kinds of small projects. I think what’s sadder to me in a way is that it’s harder and harder to get the big budget old-fashioned Hollywood movie made. That you just don’t see that much anymore unless it’s a Marvel superhero movie. Nothing against a Marvel superhero movie—love that—but something that maybe The Bonfire of the Vanities was aspiring to be as something for grownups. That to me is sad.
The budgets have not come under control although you would think they would be with all of the technology at your fingertips to make so many things that much easier. But that just does not seem to happen, and that has to do with salaries and all kinds of things. I don’t know, what do you think Ben?
Ben Mankiewicz: What there isn’t anymore—and Julie and I have talked about this—what’s gone is the middle-range movie. We know the Marvel movies and Warner Bros. is going to have the DC movies. What is showing up and what television has done with these great, great shows is almost like they have filled the void of the grownup, adult drama.
What is missing is what my producer friends say are the $10-15 million up to $25-30 million movies. That’s a big budget, a real budget to make something. Now if a movie like that got made, it would be a limited series like Mare of Eastown, which was phenomenal but wasn’t a movie.
Obviously, there are some exceptions, but there is not the budget for the stuff in the middle that’s for grownups. We’re obviously catering to a young adult and teenage audience with the big mainstream movies and certainly the movies that catch your eye or have the billboards that get the press attention. It’s regrettable, but it’s not like there is not good storytelling available to see on the screen.
Classic Couple: You had unprecedented access as an author and an observer into the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Thinking back what was the most surprising thing you discovered about Hollywood filmmaking in this process?
Julie Salamon: I think the most surprising thing was the chaos—not in terms of it being a mess, but it is almost deliberate chaos. There are so many things—especially for a movie like that that is so big—that are like a corporation in a way. People used to talk about the factory of the studio, but this is different. It’s like a conglomeration of all these different things going on simultaneously. Just thinking about what the director has to hold in his or her head while they are making this film—the people, the places, the three dimensionality, the organizational part—it’s just something I never thought of. You’re moving tons of people and equipment, there’s construction, there’s all these different aspects to it. At some level I must have known that, but to actually be there, that was a constant astonishment. The fact that any movie ever gets made is a miracle, and the fact that some of them are actually good is even more of a miracle.
Ben Mankiewicz: Let me say to anybody out there, anybody who loves movies, on the off chance and odds are at least one of you has not read The Devil’s Candy. You’ll love it because it is just so good. No matter how much you know about moviemaking, it will change how you think about it. It changed Julie. She was a film critic for The Wall Street Journal, and she didn’t know. You can’t know. That’s why The Devil’s Candy the book is so valuable. It just teaches you so much about this business. And of course, it’s a catastrophe in a sense because $50 million of business money, of corporate money was invested in a bunch of lunatic artists like Brian De Palma.
Of course, the potential for conflict was enormous—which is why we’re doing the podcast, which is why she wrote the book. It’s these forces coming together like oil and water that in many ways don’t belong together. But when it works it’s amazing and when it doesn’t work, you can learn from it. And there is value in that. I like seeing films that didn’t work because you can learn from them. If you haven’t read it, or if it’s been more than 10 years since you’ve read the book, just read it. You’ll fall in love with it.