The stars were in drag, the director was pregnant and triple-figure temperatures flaked the makeup off baking faces. In short, it was just another day at the office for Beeban Kidron in the middle of Nebraska, filming “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” starring Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo. You want another name to attach to this drag-queens-on-the-road movie? How about Steven Spielberg, who godfathered the project? You want more? How about Robin Williams, Gary Oldman, James Spader, John Turturro, Stephen Baldwin, Val Kilmer and John Cusack? All of them manfully struggled into accessorized gowns to audition for roles they wound up not getting. “I’ll be honest,” says director Kidron. “I needed them to look good.” Says Leguizamo, dipping into his origins in stand-up, “If you had that tape, boy …”
It’s easy enough for them now, taking turns talking about the movie in air-conditioned suites in a Park Avenue hotel. But at the time, all agree in separate interviews, the shoot began to take on the lessalluring elements of a life sentence on Devil’s Island. At first, each of the actors says, he thought it would be larky, dressing up in women’s clothes and doing the anti-macho thing. “I thought it was going to be a party, like ‘White Men Can’t Jump,’ but the party was over quick,” says Snipes. “Wesley was the funniest, John was the prettiest and Patrick carried it,” says Kidron, who directed “Used People” in the United States after making a splash in her native England with “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” and “Antonia and Jane.”
“Sometimes the competitive edge was unbelievable,” Kidron says. “Mostly it took the form of joking - my (boobs) are better than yours, my legs, my heels, I can walk on gravel and you can’t, and so on. Mostly they were fantastic, but there were definitely days when the tights were too tight. Having the egos of men and the vanity of women three times - it’s a tough combination. On the good days, it was the best. On the bad days it was a nightmare. I was a mother for a long time before I gave birth to my first child.” Part of the trouble was a tight shooting schedule. “Wong Foo” - the film takes its name from an autographed photo in a Chinese restaurant that becomes an icon and good-luck charm - was never seen as a big-budget movie. Even with Spielberg behind it, the original budget was $10 million. But those hours spent in makeup chairs in a place that took four planes to reach added up. Eventually, the film cost $25 million and took a few weeks more to shoot.
“All three of us are Leos, so all three of us found our tree to piss on,” sums up Snipes, who describes his character, Noxeema, as the realist in the group. When they weren’t trying to upstage one another, Leguizamo roared up and down in a golf cart, getting dust in everybody’s wigs, Snipes plotted the kidnap and ransom of Leguizamo’s dog, and Swayze supplemented the instruction that all three got from drag consultants with private coaching from his dancer wife, Lisa. “I’d get the hips, but then Lisa would tell me I lost the shoulders,” says Swayze, who says he used his experiences - as a kid in Houston he’d often get beaten up when returning home from lessons in his mother’s dance studio - to relate to his character’s outsider status. He modeled his classy Chanel-themed character on his mother and his aunt, he says. For the voice, he looked to Lauren Bacall, Demi Moore, “and I don’t think a woman is a woman unless she adds a bit of Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’
“I went in naively thinking I could do it with dress-up,” Swayze says of his den-mother character who anchors the film emotionally, Vida Boheme. But it didn’t feel right, he says, until he plugged into Vida’s pain. “I thought it would be fun, a lark, comedic and outrageous. But it only started working the moment I realized Vida can’t be a caricature, a man in a dress, and I started playing her as a woman 100 percent. The other characters could do the Miss Thing and drag queen stuff, but Vida had to be real. When I remembered the pain of losing men I loved - my father, my acting coach, my manager, even my dog - that connected me to the way we all feel isolated and stuck in our shells. Vida felt if she could fix everyone else’s life, then maybe she could feel better about herself. It rips Vida apart if she can’t fix things.
“Put Wesley and John and me in drag and turn us loose - she had her hands full. Sometimes it was a battlefield. You know, we actors are emotional beasts. Early on, you want to give 100 percent, only to find a director just graduated from film school and doesn’t know a thing about an actor’s process. I don’t consider Beeban a new director. Beeban understands emotion. With new directors, emotional scenes scare the hell out of them. They run from it. But not Beeban. Nobody really had faith in her except Spielberg, but Beeban is not a lightweight. If anyone’s going to survive the studio squash, she will. The first cut was a movie the studio was scared of. It moved too fast. The movie screamed through its big moments. Beeban took it back and did the most artful job of cutting and pacing it. It’s amazing how a few little adjustments can make a big difference.”
A few little adjustments, plus a bulletproof umbrella proffered by Spielberg. Kidron says she campaigned vigorously for his OK, and once he gave it, she was left alone to make the movie. “Steven has a voracious appetite for film and I very fortunately hit a gap in Steven’s life between ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Schindler’s List.’ He was my point guy. We talked about the script and the casting, he watched dailies, he was a participant. I actually think this picture is not so different from a lot of the work we associate with him. It’s sort of a mythical journey with a happy ending. The fact that it happens to be drag queens is almost immaterial. I think that in this time to do a piece that really speaks tolerance.
“I think it was important not to make a bitchy queen mistake. I find the drag community full of life and love of life. They are a positive community. I wanted to show that, also the glamour, color and humor. We only lost one day because of my condition. I was actually flat-stomached when we started. I didn’t know I was pregnant. When I called to tell Steven I was pregnant, he told the studio that I was his chosen director, which meant he would have had to step in if I couldn’t go on. He suggested I work from a couch inside my trailer, using video monitors. It would have been much easier to say I was tired if I wasn’t pregnant. I felt very responsible that my pregnancy should not affect the movie. That long, wacky title is a signal to audiences that it’s a mainstream film. The last thing you want to show is the sheer effort of doing something which on the surface looks like so much fun.”
Everyone agrees on the biggest laugh during filming. It came when Kidron, barely controlling impatience during a fruitless effort at improvisation, hissed, “Could we please just play the script?” The set went silent. The next instant, a carpenter dropped a two-by-four. It clattered resoundingly. “I think Beeban’s water just broke,” Leguizamo cracked, to waves of tension-breaking laughter. As it happened, Kidron did not give birth until the day after shooting ended and she was back in New York. Ask her if she willed the birth to hold off, and she smiles and shrugs a who-knows? shrug.
The baby sat on her lap in the editing room, where she nursed it for four months. At 9 months, it’s small enough to permit travel, so Kidron will do some, crossing the United States to make a documentary on love at first sight, armed with a suitcase full of 600 letters from people who fell.
“It’s lovely not being in the heat and not being pregnant,” native Londoner Kidron says. “It was like having a radio inside. I’m like this overprivileged gypsy, traveling around. I’ve got about three years before I have to decide where my base is. Right now, my base is a suitcase.”