by Jim Eaton-Terry
“You’ve got to be a genius to make a movie this bad”
The Devil’s Candy is like no other book on film I’ve read. A former financial journalist, Julie Salamon was film critic for the Wall Street Journal when she gained access to Brian De Palma’s production of Tom Wolfe’s satirical novel. Her first idea was to give an industrial view of the filmmaking process and show the complexity of the contemporary cinema industry, and she does that, but she also wound up on the set of one of the most spectacular commercial and critical flops in the history of Hollywood.
There are plenty of books – great books – about the art of film. There are books about the politics of the industry and the studio systems. And there are books of gossip about the ludicrous egos of everyone involved. The Devil’s Candy touches on all those areas, but where Salamon really excels is at showing the sheer number of different processes involved in a blockbuster movie. Detailed but never dry, she gives you a view of everything from the costume shop to the ever-expanding budget.
Salamon follows the process from the first deals to the public reception of the film. She spends time with everyone from the location scouts to the director as they embark and then continue into disaster. That disaster shadows the book from its cover on, but Salamon never pre-empts her story: it’s only in the final third that you start to understand the sheer scale of it, and begin to feel something of the pain that might result from devoting two years of your life to a film that becomes an international punchline.
You wouldn’t feel this way if The Devil’s Candy was all Schadenfreude (though Bruce Willis doesn’t come out of it well). Indeed, what keeps you engaged is the evident love everyone involved in the production has for the craft of filmmaking – Salamon included. Whether she’s following the Second Unit Director through the interminable process of filming a 10-second shot of Concorde landing (a shot the Director of Photography steals the credit for in the trade press) or judging the power relations in a debate on comic timing between De Palma and Willis, Salamon never fails to show the work that’s done, the people who do it, and how much the film finally means to them all.
“The Bonfire of the Vanities” left a trail of maimed careers in its wake: in the twenty years since its release it has yet to earn back even a third of its budget. ‘Nobody realized it was going wrong when we were making it,’ De Palma would say later, with the air of a man who still doesn’t understand what happened. But who does? Salamon identifies some key bad decisions – in particular the production’s growing reliance on focus-groups and polling to drive the editing process – but the lasting impression is of a task that was impossible in the first place: to make a caustic satire with enough mass appeal to recoup a multi-million dollar investment. It also speaks to the mixed optimism and brutality of Hollywood. De Palma talked of making a satire as broad and as angry as “Dr Strangelove”, but as one money-man puts it after the first screening, ‘”Dr Strangelove” didn’t do so well.’ In the gap between the two ideas, a terrible fiasco was born.
Jim Eaton-Terry tweets occasionally. He has never seen The Bonfire of the Vanities
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