Body Shots (1999) – Feature

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When four guys and four girls set off on a wild ride through L.A.’s nightlife, they get more ? and less ? than they bargained for. Fueled by the need for love and intimacy, the evening takes them on a crash course through the turbulent world of sex and dating.

BODY SHOTS is the story of eight twenty-somethings who try and piece together the events of one night that may or may not change their lives forever. Directed by Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright, Michael Cristofer, the film stars Sean Patrick Flanery, Jerry O’Connell, Amanda Peet, Tara Reid, Ron Livingston, Emily Procter, Brad Rowe and Sybil Temchen.

“BODY SHOTS is about the search for love,” explains its director, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Michael Cristofer. On the face of it, the story of eight young men and women and a single night that changes their lives, written with the now signature grittiness of screenwriter David McKenna (AMERICAN HISTORY X), seems to be at a considerable distance from affairs of the heart. But Cristofer, who in addition to directing, did rewrites on the script, places love and the longing for intimacy at the center of this unusual story.

“At the heart of the story is a search for some kind of connection, for some kind of love,” says Cristofer . “You look at the actions these kids take or the choices they make and you know right away they are desperate for something.”

Early in 1998, Cristofer, the acclaimed director of the award-winning HBO movie, GIA, was approached by New Line and producer Jennifer Keohane to direct BODY SHOTS.

“We were looking for a writer/director,” recalls producer Keohane, “someone who could help humanize the script.” Keohane’s association with the project began in 1995 when the screenplay landed in the office of Colomby/Keaton, a company that had a reputation for working with young writers. McKenna’s writing stood out from the stacks of scripts on Keohane’s desk. “I read the first four pages of the script,” she recalls, “and was really blown away.”

Jennifer Keohane set out working with the then-unknown screenwriter David McKenna. “I was so struck by the authenticity of these characters.” she recalls. “The script mirrored the lives of so many people I know. David doesn’t skip over the uncomfortable things, he puts a magnifying glass on them and I think people need to see the kind of films that David writes.”

Upon his initial reading of the script, Michael Cristofer was unsure if the project was really for him. “It was a lifestyle that on the surface was foreign to me,” Cristofer recalls. “There are so many films now in which young people misbehave in some nihilistic way. It’s fashionable to feel that way when you’re in your twenties. I didn’t want to do a picture like that.”

Still entertaining other projects, Cristofer noticed there was something about the story that stayed with him. “I began to become more and more fascinated by what I perceived as their dilemma,” says Cristofer. “I agreed to do it and asked New Line to let me play with the story a little.”

“I went back to the script approaching it, not from the perspective of a twenty-six-year-old,” Cristofer continues, “but from the vantage point of someone older, someone my own age. I began to have not just curiosity, but a kind of sympathy for these young people who were living this somewhat brutal lifestyle. I found a way into these characters. I saw a sadness in the story, in their lives. I felt for them and I thought I could make an audience feel for them too.”

Cristofer honed the script and added a new level of raw honesty and compassion to McKenna’s characters. “The absence of intimacy and the difficulty of finding love is, unfortunately, a pretty universal theme. I wanted to make a film that explored how this generation approaches sex and dating.”

The story starts out much as a night out with eight twenty-somethings might, with anticipation, excitement and sexual energy. Cristofer decided to do some research and joined a group of young friends for a night out. “I found there was this appearance of closeness or intimacy because they had surrounded themselves with people. But that was an illusion because individually it was apparent that there was great loneliness going on with each of these kids.”

BODY SHOTS graphically explores the chaos of finding love and the emptiness of the one night stand. “There is a confusion about sexuality,” Cristofer observes, “a strange idea that sex magically brings you closer to something. When, in fact, the experience of sex often actually distances or alienates you from someone and from yourself.”

Says the producer, “Sex in this film is not always a bad thing. There are positive depictions of sex as well as some problematic ones. For instance, we’ve tried to show that it’s okay for women to be sexual. They’re not “bad” because they want to have sex and that’s what’s really cool about this script — the women get down and dirty and they talk frankly about sex.”

Cristofer recognized the necessity of exploring some of the more difficult issues in the film through the eyes of a young cast. “At twenty-three or twenty-four, you’re not as wise as you think you are. As an audience member, I am more forgiving of people who make mistakes at that age. Some of the behavior in this film is such that I felt if the characters were in their thirties, they would have needed a good kick in the ass. I think you care for these kids because they’re younger and you hope for them. You hope they’ll find a way to escape this cycle they’re trapped in.”

That said, Cristofer finds his sympathy for the characters leaning toward the young man and woman at the center of the crisis that threatens to engulf everyone. “I have to say I like the bad guys,” Cristofer says. “I find they get into the most trouble because they are the most needy. They need something and they need it more, or more intensely than the others do. Consequently, they pay the price for it.”

The “bad guys” Cristofer is talking about are characters Sara Olswang and Michael Penorisi. “Michael Penorisi,” as Cristofer observes “is an out of control football player.”

“He is still,” explains Sean Patrick Flanery who plays his best friend Rick “a frat boy who does beer bongs and gets into trouble for fun.” Jerry O’Connell was drawn to the role because of the complexity he saw in the character. “My initial reaction when reading the first part of the script was ?this is gonna be really fun’. I’d just come off of working with a young cast in SCREAM 2 and really wanted to work with a group of people my age again. Then, I got to the second half of the story and I realized it wasn’t a comedy but it was actually quite dramatic. That’s when I knew I had to do it.”

Penorisi is O’Connell’s second stint in the NFL for the big screen, after his role in JERRY MAGUIRE as “Cush,” the highly touted number one draft pick. Even though, as O’Connell explains, “Mike is living out every little boy’s dream, ” he’s not doing it gracefully. “He’s a loud, rambunctious, I-don’t-give-a-crap-about-anyone-else kind of guy.”

Tara Reid’s character, Sara, is the youngest of her friends. “She’s the one we all want to protect, to keep safe,” explains Emily Procter, who plays Sara’s friend Whitney. “She’s the baby,” continues Procter, “but she’s also really wild and a little out of control, especially on this particular evening.”

Actress Tara Reid says both she and O’Connell, who went to high school together, worked to keep these two difficult characters as multi-dimensional as possible. “We tried to make them likeable,” says Reid, “so you wouldn’t be able to easily pigeonhole them. I tried to play Sara so the audience would like her even though they may not want to.”

The two characters meet one another on the dance floor of a crowded club and for a moment it seems as if their needs might coincide. But there is just a little too much right below the surface of both these characters. What emerges is a distressing labyrinth in which the lives of these eight young people are caught up. With Sara crouched at Jane’s door the next morning, half-naked, wet and dirty, the beginning of a painful reality begins to settle in. “There is this illusion of intimacy within the group,” explains Cristofer, “this sense of camaraderie, of friendship, which begins to fall apart the morning after they’ve all gone out.”

Each of these characters dissects the events in their own very particular way, with a distinctive perspective of and response to the events of the night before and each of them is affected in a way they could never have anticipated.

“After a night like that,” explains Reid, “you can easily wake up and have no idea where you are or what happened to get you there. Then you start putting a story together because it makes you feel better; it makes you feel safe. I think that’s exactly what happens in the film. They’re all telling stories because they don’t quite remember. Maybe they’re true and maybe they’re not and that’s what is great about this film ? it’s up to the audience to decide what happened. The audience becomes the ultimate judge of their behavior.”

In order for the audience to make sense of the night’s events, the story unfolds as a carefully crafted tapestry. It opens with two bodies passed out on a bed that we later discover belongs to Rick Donnelson and Jane Bannister.

“Rick and Jane are the two characters for whom we have the most hope,” explains the director, “they are the only two characters who discover a kind of intimacy, the possibility for a relationship. Ironically, they are also the only two characters who don’t have sex.”

That may be because Rick, as Sean Patrick Flanery, the actor who plays him explains, “has done all the stupid things that you do growing up and now he realizes that the girl that feels best is the one that you actually want to take to breakfast the next morning.”

Sara’s appearance at Jane’s apartment tests Rick and Jane’s nascent relationship. “Michael had Sean and I think about Romeo and Juliet in relation to our own characters,” explains Amanda Peet, who plays Jane. “He wanted us to see that ours is basically a love story about two people whose attraction is thwarted by this event that divides the people around them.”

“The men and the women tend to get polarized by the events of the night,” says the director. “It’s another problem with the group. They tend to reinforce their own opinions and it creates this illusion of knowledge. When you think you know something and you really don’t, you set the stage for trouble.”

Perhaps on the other end of the spectrum are Whitney and Trent. “I think that Trent and Whitney are looking for camaraderie,” says Emily Procter who plays Whitney, “they’re looking for someone who is equally outside the norm.” Whitney, who takes care of everything and makes sure it’s all okay, is split between her life with her friends and what Procter calls a “stylish sexuality.” “She’s a little bit off the beaten path,” laughs Procter. “She’s not afraid of her sexuality, she embraces it. But it’s a side of herself she doesn’t share with her friends.”

“He’s a complete freak!” jokes Ron Livingston, the actor who dons the golf knickers and argyle socks that are Trent. “He’s got his own thing going on. He’s not really bound by any sense of public fashion or style. He’s not afraid of pretty much any stripe or shape of sex. Sometimes he can be a pretty kinky guy.”

“The real bad boy,” explains Cristofer, “is Trent, whose behavior is completely out of control. At the same time he and Whitney seem to have a kind of wisdom about them.”

Someplace lost in between are Emma and Shawn. “Emma is strangely detached,” says Cristofer. “She drinks a little too much. But for some reason when we were casting the film, I kept thinking she’d be the one who’d change next. She’s a little sharper, a little more intelligent and sometimes seems strangely detached from the group as if she’s taking it all in.”

Sybil Temchen, who plays Emma, says she relates to all the characters. “Emma and the rest of the cast for that matter, are in that strange place in their life when you’ve left the safety of school where everything seems mapped out for you and now you’re kind of flailing in the wind. You’re not sure how to define life for yourself. I think Emma uses her drinking to anchor herself and eventually she’ll see that that’s not working.”

Brad Rowe was cast as Shawn Denigan, “a quiet, sweet natured, old fashioned guy from Atlanta. He’s the moral compass for the guys?at least that’s what he thinks. He always talks about courtship and romance and old fashioned values, but when it comes down to it, after a few drinks he’s as much of a miscreant as the others,” says Rowe.

Cristofer needed to show the audience the contradictions in the characters. These are eight young people trying to figure who they are and how they fit into the world. They present one facade to each other, another to members of the opposite sex and even another to themselves.

In order to capture the discrepancies, Cristofer chose to take down the fourth wall and have the characters talk directly to the camera.

“The reason I decided to use the interviews,” explains the director, “was because I thought there was a side to these people that we weren’t seeing. Watching them interact tended to feel shallow because I think they were trapped in a pretty shallow dynamic. I wanted to go deeper and I didn’t see them sitting down and talking with each other about the deeper, darker parts of themselves. I was trying to find a process that wouldn’t make us feel like we weren’t outside watching their behavior, some of which is pretty offensive. If you can’t find some sympathy for these kids, if you don’t care about them, their behavior can be very off-putting.”

“It’s very rare to have a character break the fourth wall, ” says executive producer Guy Riedel. “I think its much more interesting for this particular film to have the characters break away and talk directly to the camera. The interviews play against what we see the characters say and do in the scenes. It’s a pretty unique way to tell a story. It was one of the things that originally attracted me to the project.”

Another character in this drama is the city of Los Angeles, which serves as an important backdrop for the story. It’s a place that usually conjures images of BAYWATCH beaches and MELROSE PLACE romance. In reality, Los Angeles is an all-too-unforgiving Mecca to the thousands of young people who journey looking for the brass ring.

“It’s difficult to connect with people in any large city,” explains producer Keohane who is originally from a small town in Rhode Island. “But in L.A., it seems even more so. There’s no sense that you’ll run into someone walking down the street like you might in New York. That lack of community is only exacerbated for the numbers of young people for whom home is hundreds and often thousands of miles away.”

“People often go out to bars and clubs because they’re seeking a connection,” continues Keohane, “not just romantic or sexual connection?but a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a family away from home, things which are pretty hard to find in those kind of places.”

“L.A.,” says New Jersey native executive producer Guy Riedel, “is a place with no beginning, no middle and no end. It’s a great symbol for contemporary isolation. No one seems to be able to find the heart of the city, or its soul for that matter.”

Cristofer, a native New Yorker, looked for environments that would overtake the characters and would illustrate their loneliness. At the director’s request, the production sought out spaces to film where the environment was larger than the people in it. They landed in downtown Los Angeles for several scenes set against the vast buildings of concrete and glass and dizzying heights. “It’s not going to be the L.A. of movies, not the L.A. people usually see,” says executive producer Riedel.

“There is a conflict going on in the story between two worlds,” explains the director, “a frantic world which contains desperation, compulsive sexuality and violence and another one in which things are more still, in which you can see a little more clearly. In the time frame of the film, we’ve tried to capture both.”

In order to reveal the facades that permeate the characters and to illustrate the sadness that underlies all the revelry, it was necessary to find a way to show the contradictions without necessarily dramatizing them.

“We utilized a variety of film techniques to underscore what was really going on with the characters,” explains cinematographer Rodrigo Garcia, who joins the director for the second time after their collaboration on the award-winning GIA.

The filmmakers chose to shoot in a wide format in order to accentuate the environment around the characters and to underscore their isolation. The wider format and the use of bold angles also helped them avoid making the interview sequences look too much like television.

“Because a lot of scenes are not about what’s being said but about the interaction of the group, Michael wanted us to shoot people in groups as much as possible, in two shots, three shots and four shots,” explains Garcia.

“There’s this feeling of getting lost in the search for something that, for them, is basically unattainable,” says the director. “These kids are trying to meet a fundamental need. They want to come together with another person and it simply backfires. We wanted to use the camera to illustrate the isolation that each of them feels, even within a group of people.”

Another technique used by the filmmakers was to shoot a few scenes at three to six frames per second and step print them down to twenty-four frames per second. The result is to make the bodies and objects that are moving in the frame appear very fast, causing them to blur around the character who is almost motionless.

Cristofer explains that, “the camera work is very different in different scenes, a little darker in the beginning, in the frantic scenes and as we move into the stillness the camera tends to calm down, the characters level out, and as we approach the end of the film, the bright light of day begins to take over and it becomes still and quiet. And that’s the way we end.”

What begins as eight people’s search for answers about one night in their lives ends with questions?about themselves, who they are, where they’re going and how they’ll get there.