Let the buzz begin. Principal photography on “Wolf” has been completed, and the film is in the early stages of editing, aimed at a spring ’94 release. The top-shelf werewolf project brought together a remarkable mixture of talents: the original story was written by esteemed novelist Jim Harrison; the cast includes Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, Kate Nelligan and Christopher Plummer; wolf-maestro Rick Baker created the special makeup; and Amalgamated Dynamics handled the mechanical FX. The film was directed by Mike Nichols, who has never before ventured into outright genre work, but has certainly demonstrated a barbed sense of storytelling in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “The Graduate” and “The Day of the Dolphin”.
Of course, with so many A-list names on board, there’s always a possibility that the dreaded “It’s not really a horror film” soft sell will be the order of the day. But producer Doug Wick promises the “Wolf’s” teeth will be plenty sharp. “Jim Harrison is a wonderful writer, and he has a cabin on the upper peninsula of Michigan; he’s been there in the dead of winter under fool moons, so he’s been fascinated by the legend of lycanthropy for years,” Wick explains. “He constructed a story about what would happen if you found this power inside of yourself, and could reclaim strengths that have been beaten away by the real world”.
“At the same time, we were definitely aware that we had one foot in the genre”, he continues. “We wanted to make sure we paid tribute to that genre and didn’t miss any of its power. We knew nobody wanted to see “My Dinner with Wolfman”. On the other hand, we wanted the film to be something more than a guy in a wolf mask running around New York City”.
Nicholson portrays a professorial book editor who’s been wearied by the strains of a life-sapping day job and a less-than-peachy marriage. His publishing company is being bought by Plummer’s character, whose daughter (Pfeiffer) becomes Nicholson’s moonlight mistress. Spader plays his best friend, though he develops a villainous streak as the story progresses. The precise way in which lycanthropy enters the picture is being kept under wraps, but once Nicholson becomes a werewolf, he does not simply become a hairy wanderer. He uses his enhanced sensory abilities and physical strengths to get what he wants out of his job and his love life.
Harrison stayed on with the project as an associate producer, although his script was given a rewrite by Wesley (“Cape Fear”) Strick and some additional dialogue by Nichols’ longtime collaborator Elaine May. Nicholson has reportedly never been much of a makeup fan, but often found himself on the receiving end of five- or six-hour makeup sessions under Baker. “In the old Wolfman movies”, says Wick, “what I didn’t like was that after the transformation, you lost touch with the character because he was under a layer of plastic. Rick gave us makeup that enhances his face, but Jack’s always there. If you think about the standard for a great werewolf today, that’s something Rick Baker established. In this film, he got to set a new standard”.
Wick adds that although the film is full of top-notch stunts and fight scenes, it’s often Nicholson’s physical presence alone that gives the film its kick. “There’s a scene early on where Jack is in a tweed jacket standing in front of a butcher shop in midtown Manhattan. The way he looks at the steaks through the window, with just the right glint in his eye, gives you the whole story in a single moment”.
Wick worked with Harrison for a year and a half before bringing the project to Nicholson and then Nichols, and he still seems somewhat amazed that it all came together. He hopes that audiences will get excited about a werewolf film that is as classy as it is bloody. “I think it will be a great night at the movies,” the producer says. “The film has some beautiful, breakout moments, like when Jack is restless on night, and he goes for a walk in the woods and ends up chasing down a deer. It’s wild, but it’s always rooted in some kind of emotional reality. When the guy wakes up the next day, you get the fun of knowing how you’d feel if you were covered with blood and didn’t know what you did the night before. There are movies that don’t bother with that, and they always feel fake. “Wolf” is always asking, “How would you feel?” and I think the answer is: pretty damn weird.”
Chuck Crisafulli, Fangoria