By Andrew Bloomenthal.
Every once in a great while, a film comes along that changes everything. Not a juggernaut event movie that stirs the masses, but a small film you watch with a quiet exhilaration that reminds you why you fell in love with cinema in the first place. The 1994 neo-noir thriller The Last Seduction, directed by John Dahl, starring Bill Pullman, Peter Berg and Linda Fiorentino, is one such title. I was privileged to interview its writer, Steve Barancik.
The Last Seduction follows Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino), a sultry femme fatale, who wants swankier digs than the Harlem apartment her telemarketer paycheck can swing. After making her squirrelly husband Clay (Bill Pullman) pull off a $700,000 drug deal to finance a housing upgrade, she decides the new home would be happier without him, and absconds with cash to the last place Clay would think to look: the suburbs.
In the fictitious town of Beston, Bridget meets corn-fed beefcake Mike Swale (Peter Berg), a naïve claims adjuster, blinded by Bridget’s cosmopolitan sheen. For Bridget, Mike is strictly a sexual layover, until she can finalize a divorce with Clay and reclaim her life in the City. Mike thinks he has a future with her. She recalibrates him often.
Bridget’s brazen sexuality became an anthem of female empowerment. Even Sex and The City’s resident sexpot Samantha Jones (Kim Catrall) saluted her, in the show’s pilot episode about women having sex like men. But Barancik never intended to write a message movie – just a riveting one. Besides, Bridget Gregory makes Carrie Bradshaw and company look like amateurs. And she kills, literally.
When Clay dispatches Harlan (Bill Nunn), a private detective, to track Bridget down and separate her from the loot, Harlan thinks it’ll be an easy grab, as he forces her at gunpoint to drive to her house where the cash is stashed. But Bridget doesn’t fold so easily. After taunting Harlan’s so-called “shortcoming”, he unbuckles his seatbelt and whips “it” out just to shut her up. As she careens into a telephone pole, the poor sap never sees his flight through the windshield coming.
Also there’s the marketing gig Bridget takes at the local life insurance company, where she passes the time by calling the wives of adulterous policy-holders to pitch contract-killing their cheating husbands – just to see if she can close a sale. Although Mike is dubious of her pretend murder game, he doesn’t protest the real thing, when Bridget sends him to New York to dispose of her pesky Clay problem. If Mike only realized that Bridget is a chess master in a world full of checker-playing chumps, he’d know everyone on her game board is just a pawn in her larger design.
Real-life mastermind Steve Barancik discusses all of this and more, in this behind-the-scenes look at his unique Seduction journey.
What nugget of inspiration sparked your initial idea for this film?
The nugget that got the movie started in my brain was when I graduated college and found myself in the business of telemarketing, and I developed this notion that if you chose your variables right, you could make a list of women who might have a high propensity to be interested in offing their husbands. If you identified men with multiple credit cards that had authorized users other than their wives, you might be able to pitch having the men killed, which is the scene in the movie when Bridget and Mike are in the office after hours, and she’s talking about pitching murder to strangers.
And what influenced you to make the architect of this game a sexy femme fatale?
I don’t think it received much thought. I was always much more interested in writing about women than men because I find them to be so much more interesting and confounding. And because I knew she was up to no good, I conjured up a character that would likely get me in trouble if she really existed. Someone dangerous in that way.
Do you watch The Last Seduction regularly?
I haven’t seen it in its entirety in probably over a decade. I can’t bear to watch the movie.
Why is that?
Ah, it just makes me cringe a bit. I don’t think of it as highly as you do. Any writer is likely to have this experience with something he wrote early in his career. You just see the naiveté or your own amateurishness. And that’s coupled with something else with screenwriters, which is that half the problems you see are of your own responsibility, and half are the things you couldn’t control, where you feel others perhaps misinterpreted things. So it just becomes a painful thing to watch.
Can you give an example of a change between the script and the film that perturbs you?
I don’t know if it perturbs me, but if there’s any remaining interest in this little movie, I can’t imagine that this will get anyone in trouble at this point in time, but I’ll give you something no one has ever written about. In the beginning, an acquisitions guy from ITC Entertainment recognized what was a quality script, but this company didn’t make quality scripts, so there was actually an under-the-radar intention to make a good movie without letting the executives know about it. The company basically wanted to make standard skin-e-max type stuff, and from what I gather, that’s how this film was pitched.
The funny story pertaining to what you just asked, is that there was a theme of sexual role-playing in the script, and they shot a scene in a high school gymnasium, where Mike and Bridget were playing out Mike’s high school fantasy of having sex with the sexy cheerleader. Linda was wearing a cheerleading outfit, and I scripted her topless, but in wardrobe, Linda decided it would be kinkier if she wore a pair of suspenders. Apparently, a guy from the company who was monitoring things and watching the dailies, saw the suspenders over Linda’s nipples, and shouted out, “Are we making an art movie?!” He shut down production and called the principals on the carpet and they all had to pledge that they had no artistic pretensions, then he punished them by not paying them that half day of production and by forbidding that scene from being in the movie, which ruined the whole sexual role-playing theme. If you watch the movie, there’s one remaining hint of it in the three scene at the end, with Bridget, Mike and Clay, where Clay says something to the effect of, “Baby, you were one hell of a sexy nun.”
So the company’s higher-ups felt the film was too sanitized because Linda put on suspenders, rather than going completely topless?
Yes, and before filming, this executive sent flowers to everybody, saying, “Here’s to the sexiest movie ever!” Well no one had any intention of making that movie.
Let’s talk about Bridget Gregory, a woman who always gets what she wants, where rules don’t apply to her. In one scene, she pulls into a self-serve gas station, then we cut to an attendant filling her tank. Was that scripted?
That was scripted.
Bridget utters some cunning dialogue, like in this classic exchange with Mike Swale, when they first meet at Ray’s Bar:
BRIDGET: Could you leave…please?
MIKE: I haven’t finished charming you yet.
BRIDGET: You haven’t started.
MIKE: Give me a chance.
BRIDGET: (sighs) Go find yourself a nice little cowgirl and make nice little cow-babies and leave me alone.
MIKE: I’m hung like a horse. Think about it.
BRIDGET: Let’s see.
MIKE: Excuse me?
BRIDGET: Mr. Ed, let’s see.
How effortless was it to write this verbal ping-pong?
I’m not going to give you any false modesty. If there was one thing that I was good at, that came naturally to me, it was snappy dialogue. I probably bottomed out of my career because I didn’t know how not to do it. I don’t do earnest. But if you’ve got all day to figure out what characters are going to say to each other, you might as well make it clever. That was always the part I enjoyed, where my characters hopefully proved to an audience that they had smarts. I don’t think this is valued anymore, which depresses the hell out of me. At least it’s not valued in film. Maybe it moved over to TV, and perhaps I should have as well. But why write, if no one’s going to say anything that’s enjoyable to hear?
Like when Clay hires a replacement private detective to keep tabs on Bridget, and Clay tells her: “Don’t worry. He’s not going to hurt you. I need a New Yorker for that.”
(Pause) I…I wish that line was better. And I’ll tell you a truth. The line I saw quoted most often came out of an actor, and not out of my script, and that’s when J.T. Walsh asks Bridget: “Anyone check you for a heartbeat, lately?”
Yeah, that was a great line from the late J.T. Walsh.
Which I had nothing to do with, I’m afraid.
The way Bridget antagonizes Harlan, the private detective Clay first sends to collect the stolen money, was priceless.
Well there was a line I wrote in that scene that Dahl wouldn’t let me get in there, when Bridget was trying to get Harlan’s goat and get him to show her his dick, when she says, “You people must really be proud of Bill Cosby.” I don’t think they ever shot it, and I get why Dahl pulled it, but it was just another line she threw at him to provoke him.
And in my mind, Bridget isn’t racist or homophobic, because all of her antagonistic expressions have explicit objectives, as she assesses new situations and adjusts accordingly. I’d like to read an excerpt from the late Roger Ebert’s print review:
John Dahl’s ‘The Last Seduction’ knows how much we enjoy seeing a character work boldly outside the rules. It gives us a diabolical, evil woman, and goes the distance with her. We keep waiting for the movie to lose its nerve, and it never does: This woman is bad from beginning to end, she never reforms, she never compromises, and the movie doesn’t tack on one of those contrived conclusions where the morals squad comes in and tidies up. It would not be fair to ‘The Last Seduction’ to say much more about the plot, which only gradually reveals itself even to Bridget. She has a gift of improvising, moving from one crime to another as a jazzman might sample various melodic lines.
What’s your reaction to this?
I’ll admit that I couldn’t find a hole in it. It makes me feel a little better about what I did, because it does sound accurate, and it is a fair description of the movie – or of her character.
One of the film’s most curious conventions was Bridget’s ability to write backwards. When she skips town with the money, she leaves behind a note that Clay must hold up to the mirror in order to read. This also informs Bridget’s alias: “Wendy Kroy”, which is “New York” backwards. Can you explain your real-life inspiration for this?
My maternal grandmother would tell stories about how she was a lefty, and how she mirror wrote, until she was able to learn not to. That was just how her brain worked, so I knew it was something that exists, so that was my inspiration.
Was your grandmother still alive and able to see her influence on The Last Seduction when it came out?
She was still around and she thought it was just a riot. No one knew whether she should be allowed to watch it. My mother saw it for the first time when it was on HBO, before it hit theatres, and she wasn’t sure it wasn’t porn. Which means she’d never seen porn. It was a little much for my mom until it started getting good reviews.
The Last Seduction debuted on HBO before October Films acquired it for theatrical distribution, which caused a controversy of sorts, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed it ineligible for Oscar consideration, given its one-time TV airing. October and ITC Entertainment even sued the Academy, to no avail. What are your memories of this?
Well they told me – and these are my words – that they were going to manufacture a controversy. Linda started winning awards and I think they decided that a lawsuit, though destined to fail, would be good for the movie. There’s even an op-ed written by me, in the L.A. Times that came about because I got a call from a lawyer for the company who said, “We hear you wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times. Would you mind if we read it before it’s published?” And I said, “I’d be fine with that, except I didn’t write any op-ed.” It turned out I had my first impostor. Some guy had written an op-ed for the L.A. Times in my name. So when everyone found out about that, the op-ed was pulled, and then the L.A. Times asked me if I’d be willing to write a real piece, and I did. So I got involved in the whole thing, but I can’t say that I felt the slightest bit of outrage. If the Academy has its rules, the Academy has its rules.
Wait a minute. Some random guy impersonated you and wrote an op-ed in your name? That’s crazy!
Well it was crazy. And I remember his name because I called him on the phone afterward. He was a former fired prison cook, and he was even taking meetings as me. And the people he’d taken meetings with should have figured it out right away, because he claimed he’d written the script in a Denny’s restaurant with James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington. Why that wasn’t clue enough for someone to figure out what the hell was going on, I have no idea.
What?! He claimed James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington were like, sitting at a booth with him?
Co-writing it with him, I guess. But the weird thing was, when I called him up, I felt like I was the crazy one, because he was so confident that he’d written the movie, I’m the one who started stuttering. I’m like, “But, but, you didn’t write the movie! I wrote it!” And he’s trying to cut the call short. I finally got him agitated when I said, “Well I got the check!” And he’s like, “What? What?!! We have to meet! Where do you live?!” And at that point, I wasn’t that much interested in talking to him anymore.
Isn’t what he did a fraud crime?
Probably. But he was a nutcase. It was quite clear from talking to him that he believed he was responsible for the movie.
And he assumed your name?
Well he said his real name was John Steven Livichech, but that his pen name was Steve Barancik.
You were brave to confront your impostor.
Well I was trying to start a career, and there’s some crazy person taking meetings as me. And it’s like, “Those are supposed to be my meetings!” as I’m delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut. So yeah, I felt quite compelled to call him and put a stop to it. I don’t think he took any meetings after that. But he wasn’t my only impostor. Hollywood’s a weird place. I heard poets get ripped off all the time, because it’s easier to pretend you’re a writer, because no one knows what the writer looks like, so I don’t think what happened is uncommon. It couldn’t be, if my name was used twice.
Let’s discuss the pivotal three scene at the end of the film, featuring the confrontation between Clay, Bridget and Mike. For me, when Bridget asphyxiates Clay with mace, she chuckles in a way that really drove home her sociopathy. Did that scene match what you envisioned on the page?
I’m going to answer you indirectly. On the last weekend before filming, they did some rehearsing. Dahl was there, the producer Jon Shestack was there, Linda and Peter were there, Bill Pullman was there for some of it. Bill Nunn was not there, so I got to play Harlan. And they pretty much went through the whole movie in sequence, and when we got to the three scene, it just sang. It just… sang. And even though I had no experience in the business, I remember intuiting that the film was going to work, because if this culminating scene is working, it’s a sign that all the things that have come before it have worked. Clay and Mike have never met until now, so this signaled that all the tension had built properly. I know I’m contradicting my professed detestation of the movie, but I’m telling you about what I felt at the time. My reaction was just: “Wow. This works.”
And that scene also showed vestiges of the role-playing, when Bridget says to Mike: “I’m Trish! Rape me!” and Mike was able to slip into that role very quickly.
I forgot about that. Yeah. Because that can stand alone, even without the role-playing stuff setting it up. It’s the “nun” line that just makes absolutely no sense.
Are there any more behind-the-scenes anecdotes I can coax from you?
Well at one point during pre-production, Dahl called me and said the script needed to be five pages shorter, and I had already cut it down to the bone, but I thought, “Okay, if it’s got to be five pages shorter, it’s got to be five pages shorter.” So over the course of a weekend, I took out the stuff that was least painful to cut, but that was still bleeding. I got a call from Dahl after he read it, and he was like, “What did you do? What did you do?!!” And I’m like, “I cut five pages!” And he says, “You can’t cut this scene, and you can’t cut that scene!” and I said, “Well you tell me how to cut five pages!” And he said, “Change the margins!” I always love that story, because it tells you how Mickey Mouse Hollywood can be.
You’ve since become a children’s book author and run a website promoting storytelling for kids. Given that you authored such sharp, scathing dialogue, spoken by one of the most badass femme fatales, can you explain that incongruity?
Oh, it’s a little nothing. After I was crashing out of the business, and I was fostering a daughter, I wrote a couple stories – first for her and then some more that were inspired by her. So the website was just born of that, and then the site became about much more than my own work, which is almost impossible to find now. It became about getting parents to think about the reading material that they put in front of their kids. In the last year, I’ve become a teacher, and I spent this entire week reading a Junie B. Jones book to my middle-schoolers. I don’t know if you know Junie B. Jones.
I don’t, but I’ll investigate.
You should, because on some level you’re maligning children’s books unfairly when you think they can’t be full of sharpness and wit. Junie B. Jones is kind of the Bridget Gregory of kindergarten – all id and no superego. Even though they’re written at a third-grade level, it’s hard for me to think of anything I like reading more than Junie B. Jones books, and communicating that enthusiasm to my middle-schoolers, because she’s a fucking riot.
Do you have a desire to write more films, or have you left that world behind?
I chased it for a little too long. It was reasonably fun when I was getting paid for it, but when I was having to chase it, it was just miserable and unrewarding and I’m not going to chase that again. I’m happy teaching right now.
Steve, thanks so much for this interview. I hope this was a cathartic experience for you.
Well it was. It really was. This was a treat for me. I owe you as many thanks as you’ve given me.
Steve Barancik teaches at the Southside Community School in Tucson Arizona. His website, www.best-childrens-books.com, champions the importance of children’s books.
To read chronicles of his Hollywood experience, visit: www.best-childrens-books.com/steve-barancik.html