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"Wild" about "West"

Will Smith, Barry Sonnenfeld, Salma Hayek and Jon Peters Talk About Warner Bros.' Big Fourth of July Flick

As Told to Melissa Morrison

Hollywood has again mined classic TV for ideas and come up with "Wild Wild West." Wild Wild What? younger minds might ask. Ans.: The spy-and-gadget western series, starring Robert Conrad, ran from 1965 to 1970, about the time the parents of the movie's target audience were planning their prom. Yet even cable-deprived kids should be attracted to the idea of a sci-fi western, from the director (with one of his stars) of "Men In Black," another movie in which a buddy duo competes, and wins, against a backdrop of spectacular special effects.

Barry Sonnenfeld this time pairs "MIB" star Will Smith-as suave special government agent James T. West-with Kevin Kline ("In & Out") as Artemus Gordon, man of a million disguises. Salma Hayek ("54") joins them as sultry Rita Escobar, a woman who's on her own mission. They team against Dr. Arliss Loveless, played by Kenneth Branagh ("The Theory of Flight"), who is plotting to assassinate President Ulysses S. Grant (a return turn by Conrad) with the aid of an 80-foot-tall mechanical tarantula.

In our story, director Sonnenfeld (who escaped unscathed from a plane crash soon after our conversation), actor Smith, actress Hayek and the producer Jon Peters tell their tales, in their own words, of How the West Was Wild....

WILL SMITH: The Coolest Cowboy Ever Jim West-he's a little different than the original. There are certain liberties that we're taking. Jim West is black now, Jim West is a Negro [laughs]. Jim West is, like, the coolest cowboy ever. To talk about him in the context of the film is difficult, because the film is different in the same way Barry Sonnenfeld has a different sense of humor.

It's the West, and we stay completely true to the period: 1869. The special-effects aspect of the film is designed with technology that existed in 1869, so everything is gears and pulleys and Gatling guns. It's the technology of the period taken way to the next level.

The comedy is a lot like "Men In Black," where the comedy wasn't really jokes, just awkward situations. I'm actually not the funny guy. Barry said to me when I read the script [Smith adopts a higher, nasal voice], "Okay, if this is `Men In Black,' you're Tommy Lee Jones." It's a little difficult, because my instincts are naturally comedic.

"Kevin Kline and I have a really special relationship in this film. You have to be able to take turns. Comedy is in contrast. All the great comedic teams in history have contrasts: tall/short, quiet/verbose. You have to draw on the opposites to develop the comedy. I've never been the sexy guy. I've always been the goofy guy, and just to put on the clothes and hat and gunbelt and all of that and fall into this James West character, to learn how to ride a horse, does so much for you. That is so much fun, because that's so far from who I am. It's like when you're a little boy, you dream about being someone or doing something and being able to live out all of those fantasies. Learning how to ride is very exciting for me. I'd never even been on a horse.

I have a completely obsessive personality, so anything I get into I get into 18 hours a day, so I'm thinking about doing it when I'm asleep. I'm a firm believer that success is strictly based on hours committed.

I wear a costume very closely derivative of Robert Conrad's style, the bolero jacket and the whole deal. It's very, very much so that we had original designers of the TV show design for the movie.

I think [the film] is contemporary in that it's fast-paced, it's fun and it's colorful. It's a lot of the same tricks and same gags that they weren't able to ignite in the original. We have the ability technologically today to expound on the things that the original creators of the television show had designed. I think that it's special, but it's also interesting and fun and warm and nostalgic for the original viewers of the show. It's got a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new.

SALMA HAYEK: Very Distracting for the Mission She's this girl who is looking for somebody. And she's not like a professional adventure person, but the situation happens and she has to go look for this person.

In her search, she's run across two guys, who are professionals, looking for the same person but for different reasons. So she uses her charms to persuade them to take her with them, and one of them wants her to come and one of them doesn't because she's very distracting, because they both like her. He's right-she is very distracting for the mission. She helps a little, but she makes mistakes too.

Imagine: For six months I never had to wake up too early, or go to bed too late. They gave me the most humongous trailer, bigger than my first apartment in L.A. I got to work with Will Smith, who would sing all day, and Kevin Kline, who would do funny jokes all day, and Barry Sonnenfeld, who would be Barry Sonnenfeld all day, which is a joy.

Everything was fun about it.... I did some of my own stunts. I was thrown through a hole and landed on a chair, and he let me go for it, because I love to do physical stuff. I'm very good at it. I get to do a German accent. I get to ride this horse with a carriage in the back with Kevin Kline, and the horse was going really fast and these actors are on the ground and we have to not run over them. What else? I ride this very unexpected train full of surprises. I get to sing and dance. I get to be caged like a little bird by Kenneth Branagh, in his bedroom, and then be rescued. Many things.

People have this strange idea about me-it's like they think I can do only very limited things. It's always a struggle to get the part, and then they want to work with me again. I won him [Sonnenfeld] over very fast, and he was so nice to me.

I never thought a period piece could be so sexy. They tricked me! Everyone looks really good. Most of the film, I'm in this lingerie sort of thing from the 1800s, but a little more stylish.

What happens at one point [is], I'm in some sort of sexy outfit because the bad guy Kenneth plays has all these girls handling him and they're really sexy. And at one point they capture me and put me in a really sexy outfit, and put me in a cage for him. But then I get rescued, and they take me with them, but I don't have anything to wear, so I'm stuck in this outfit.

BARRY SONNENFELD:The Theory of Twos Two things. One is, I grew up with the television show. I just loved it. I love how it was sort of like James Bond in the West. The other reason I was really attracted to it was, I'm attracted to sometimes taking material that's been around for a while and reinventing it. I thought Robert Conrad did a fantastic job on the series and was the coolest guy when I was growing up. Now it's 1999, and I feel Will is the coolest guy around.

Bo Welch was the production designer. He also did "Men In Black," "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands." Really, the idea was: What would happen if you literally made a science-fiction movie in 1869? So there's a very Jules Verne-like feeling to it, lots of girders and hydraulics and dripping fluid. And the bad guy, Dr. Loveless, has sort of "leg envy," so there are spiders everywhere. His weapon of destruction is an 80-foot mechanical tarantula. Everything looks like it could have existed as state-of-the-art stuff in 1869.

My favorite gadget is Dr. Loveless' tank train. He's got this big tank and he backs the tank up into a single-car train and sort of clamshells around the train, and he uses the tank as a motor and weapons, and so the tank then goes on a railroad track and pulls this one-car train. It's really cool. And also the disk launcher is cool because it's incredibly phallic. Dr. Loveless sort of keeps people in their place by putting magnetic collars around their necks. You know those invisible doggie fences? If you step over the invisible fence, it launches these three-foot saw blades that cut your head off. You don't actually see anyone's head cut off. I wanted to pay homage to the television show, but sort of make the movie my own. The villains are really cool, the weapons are really cool, but ultimately what happens to make these kind of movies work is two things. One is the relationship of the people-in this case, we have Kevin, Will and Salma. The other thing you need is a really cool villain-in this case, Kenneth Branagh-because the good guys are only as heroic as the bad guys are evil. With Kenneth, we digitally removed his legs from every shot. He's in a wheelchair and really angry about it, because he's lost the ability to reproduce.

The big discovery for me on this movie was Salma, because she hadn't really been in a comedy before, and I have very specific taste in what's funny. Two things: One, the actors never let the audience know what they're saying is funny and, two, they have to say it really quickly. My direction is always, "Say it faster." I didn't know if Salma could do that. [But] she comes across as this incredibly sexy Lucille Ball. She's really funny without acknowledging she's funny. I think this movie could sort of help her in a big way. In "Men In Black," although Linda [Fiorentino] was in it, she could have been a man. In this one, Salma's role is integral to the story. The cool thing is, Salma's character is actually sort of babe-with-cleavage-and-sexuality, and our two guys to an extent vie [for her attention]. Will even gets to kiss her. You just sort of look at [actors'] body of work and know them as people. I think Will is whatever that chemical is you put into anything to make things combine-sort of an elixir. It's possible to put Will in a room with anybody, and Will will charm them and they will charm Will. Then you have Kevin-he's a great presence and really funny. I'm a big believer that you should never have two funny people in a movie. You always need Gracie Allen and George Burns.... You need Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball.... [In "Men In Black"] what made Tommy and Will so funny was Tommy was the straight man and Will was the funny guy. This is a little reversed. Kevin is playing Artemus Gordon, a man of a million disguises. Kevin is the brunt of the comedy, and Will is the straight man.

What's cool about this movie [is], I don't think anyone has seen Will like this before, because he looks like James Bond. He's incredibly gorgeous and sort of older-looking, more mature. He looks like the romantic hero of a movie.... In fact, at one point, Will meets this exotic woman who's a criminal and Will knows it. She's played by Bai Ling, and she introduces herself, and Will sort of tips his hat and says, "West, Jim West," and I had him do it the same way Sean Connery did "Bond, James Bond." In fact, my wife, who would come to dailies a lot, would say, "Is anyone on the planet more handsome than Will?" A woman who was a line producer would say, "I can't watch the screen, I'm going to faint."

I think what works in the tone of the movie is not unlike other films I directed, whether "The Addams Family" or "Get Shorty" or "Men In Black." Tonally, they're a little dark; they're comedies, but no one slips on a banana peel.

Because of the weaponry and because of Will's attitude and the way people are dressed and the visual effects are really extraordinary, this movie feels like a much bigger movie in scope than "Men In Black." I used to tell [Steven] Spielberg "Men In Black" was a tiny little buddy movie. If you look back, not a lot happens-it's a lot of smoke and mirrors. I sort of feel like I got away with murder and I'm not sure why people liked it as much as they did. But this movie feels like it's on a different scale.

I hope the effects are invisible. I hope people will think we actually did build an 80-foot mechanical tarantula. There was a tremendous amount of bluescreen-it lasted six weeks. One, it's painfully boring. Two, you're shooting individual shots. What's fun is two actors, three actors, talking back and forth and being able to see where the pacing can be picked up. But, on bluescreen, usually the other actor is not in the same room, so you don't get a sense if it's flowing or if it's working or if it's funny or scary until three months later and you get background plates in and say, "Oh, man, why didn't I have him be angrier in this shot?" The reason is, you couldn't tell when you shot it two weeks ago. It's painfully annoying, all that bluescreen stuff.

After "Men In Black," I vowed I would never do another big visual effects movie again, and "Wild Wild West" makes "Men In Black" seem like an afterschool special. The secret is to have the visual effects all there and then sort of ignore them. What makes it work is getting people into the story. You can't blow up things all the time. I'm always working to take explosions out of movies.

I hope that in 10, 20 years-preferably 10-I'm retired and visiting the sets of other people suffering through directing movies. I try not to define who I am by what I do. What concerns me is my wife and kid and that stuff. I don't think you'll be reading about me in any textbooks in 10 or 20 years, no matters what I do. But I definitely want to direct other movies that aren't so visually annoying. The next movie, I think, will be "Ali," with Will Smith. You know what? If I have to be directing in 10, 20 years, it will be fine as long as I'm working with Will. If I have to direct, I want to direct Will.

JON PETERS: Barry and Barbra

I felt it was the opportunity to do something completely and totally original that had never been done before. [The TV show] was just the idea, that was the beginning. You plant the seed and from that seed grows a giant tree. This movie starts in the West and turns into this Jules Verne big adventure with technology and monsters.

Plus, Barry Sonnenfeld was a guy I've always wanted to work with. He reminds me a lot of Barbra Streisand when I worked with her in the old days. He's a detail freak and very talented on every level. I knew he was the perfect creative genius for the part. Then we came up with the idea of having Will Smith play Jim West, and all the pieces started to fall in.

The tarantula is one of many things. The movie has more than 600 special visual shots, music, music videos, extras-it's huge. I have done 70 movies, and this is the biggest. It's also the most fun time I've ever had.

"Wild Wild West." Starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Salma Hayek and Kenneth Branagh. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Written by S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock and Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman. Produced by Jon Peters and Barry Sonnenfeld. A Warner Bros. release. Action/adventure/comedy/sci-fi/western/whew. Opens 7/2 wide.