by Benjamnin Svetkey
Nobody knows what it is. Nobody knows where
it comes from. Nobody can figure it out. It's
just this thing, this strange ether that hangs
Barry Sonnenfeld speaking. And he isn't talking
about any special effect; the Wild Wild West
director is referring to that mysterious and
ephemeral showbiz phenomenon called buzz.
Part rumor, part speculation, part
fabrication--and sometimes entirely true--it's
that whirlwind of watercooler whispers,
gossip-column dish, and e-mail scuttle that can
blow through Hollywood like one of those
twisters in that tornado movie that was
supposed to be a big bomb a few years ago. It
may be impossible to define--let alone predict
or control--but everybody knows it when they
And Sonnenfeld has been hearing nothing but
lately. For reasons he can't quite fathom, his
latest film--a big-screen adaptation of the
loopy sci-fi Western that ran on CBS from 1965
to 1970, with Will Smith as 19th-century secret
agent James West; Kevin Kline as
gadget-crazed sidekick Artemus Gordon; Salma
Hayek as their love interest; and Kenneth
Branagh as the evil (and legless) Dr.
Loveless--has been swarmed by bad buzz all
year. Among the worst of it: that the movie's
budget had bloated to $200 million, that
production snafus had pushed it way behind
schedule, that expensive reshoots had been
required, and that its first test screening went
so poorly the audience actually booed.
How much of the above is true and how much
isn't? We'll get to that in a minute. In
Hollywood, where what people believe is always
more important than what they know, there are
much more pressing questions. Like, Where
does all this buzz come from? How is it spread?
And, most pointed of all, What sort of effect
will it have on a big summer movie like Wild Wild
Sonnenfeld would certainly like to know. "I just
can't figure it out," he says, puffing a cigar on
the balcony of the lavish Long Island beach
house he shares with his wife and three kids. "I
don't know of any other field where people
review your work while you're still creating it.
Nobody spread rumors about Picasso's paintings
while he was still painting them. Nobody looked
at I.M. Pei's blueprints for the CAA building and
said, 'I'm not seeing windows!' Only in
Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1999: "The buzz in
Hollywood has been deafening: Wild Wild West
is way, way over budget."
Sonnenfeld: "I told [the L.A. Times reporter]
that if he saw the movie he'd know there was
no way it cost $200 million. In retrospect, that
doesn't make my movie sound so good, but it's
true. It cost about half that much."
Of course, not all buzz is bad buzz. positive
murmurs about Sonnenfeld's last movie, 1997's
Men in Black, helped prime that picture to
become the 15th biggest hit in history--and
solidified Smith's reputation as the actor
America most wants to see on screen on the
nation's birthday (the ninth- biggest hit being
Smith's Independence Day). Still, even good
buzz can have its downside.
"Eddie Murphy told me, 'The more you succeed,
the more people want you to fail,'" says Smith,
in New York to work on his next album,
featuring the single from his eye-popping Wild
Wild West video (one of the few things that
actually generated good buzz for the film). "It's
natural. People root for the underdog. And I
think that's what's happening here. In the past,
I've always been the underdog, but not
anymore. And that's uncharted territory for me,
like having a huge target on my back." And
then he suggests the unthinkable: "Maybe I
should take a break from July 4 movies for a
Too much success may have made Sonnenfeld
a buzz-worthy target as well. In just eight
years, he's become one of Hollywood's hottest
mainstream filmmakers, delivering, along with
MIB, such quirkily hip hits as the Addams Family
flicks and Get Shorty. Not bad for an ex-porno
director who once lensed nine sex features in
as many days ("So unerotic I couldn't achieve
an erection for six months afterward," he says
of the experience).
Judging by his no-indulgence-spared beach
house (a state-of-the-art screening room in
the basement, a vintage race car in the
garage), he seems to be a man who wants for
nothing--even when what he wants is kind of
weird. "You're showing him the urinal already?"
asks his wife, Susan "Sweetie" Ringo, as he
guides a guest to his pride and joy: the
public-men's-room-style plumbing he's installed
in the master bathroom. "The first privately
owned urinal on the Eastern Seaboard," he
gushes. "I deny myself nothing!"
Of course, all this heady success is bound to
piss some people off. "What's that old Gore
Vidal line?" Sonnenfeld asks, casually relighting
his cigar with a burst from a small blowtorch.
"Every time a friend succeeds, a little part of
Still, the joy of schadenfreude wasn't the only
reason for West's negative buzz. The fact is,
the film would have been a tempting
target--yet another '60s TV series being
gussied up for the big screen--no matter who
was making it. The studios keep churning out
these retreads, but unless they star Tom Cruise
(or, like the Addams films, are directed by Barry
Sonnenfeld), they almost never work. My
Favorite Martian, The Mod Squad, Sgt. Bilko,
Mr. Magoo--these days they actually do make
'em like they used to, even when they
Besides, Wild Wild West was a dicey enough
concept for a TV show--James Bond on the
Ponderosa--let alone an Event Movie. Jon
Peters, the legendary player (and notorious
buzz magnet) who owned the rights to West,
had been having trouble peddling the idea for
years. At one point he tried to lasso Mel Gibson
for both director and star, but the Aussie
cowboy saddled up for a big-screen version of
Maverick instead. Many others--including
Richard Donner and Chris Columbus--were said
to have passed on the project as well.
Sonnenfeld, however, couldn't resist. "The Wild,
Wild West and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. were
my favorite shows growing up," he says. "So
when I heard there was a script, I thought,
how could I make this my own? How could I
make it hip and smart and not just a rip-off of
the original show? And I realized the way to do
that is to hire Will Smith."
Turned out West was also Smith's fave as a
kid. "That and Star Trek," he notes. But Warner
Bros. was initially uneasy about the actor
slipping into Robert Conrad's old bolero jacket.
Sonnenfeld recounts the problem: "The thing
was, [Warner chief] Bob Daly was at CBS back
when they developed the original show. So I
had to go to him and say, 'Remember
everything you liked about Wild Wild West? I'm
going to ruin it all. Plus, I'm going to do it with
a black guy.'" But then Men in Black opened, he
says, "and the whole thing became a nonissue."
Not for everybody. There's one guy who's still
not crazy about the film's casting, as well as
everything else about it. "They've taken a
classic TV series and bastardized it," says
Conrad, 64, sounding like he's got a battery
perched on his shoulder. "I'm not happy with
these people at all."
At one point there was buzz that Conrad would
play President Grant in the film, but Peters
apparently lost Conrad's phone number (hey, it
happens; he hasn't returned ENTERTAINMENT
WEEKLY's call, either). Not that Conrad would
want to be in Sonnenfeld's movie anyway.
"There were all these sexual connotations in
the script," he says. "All these bizarre sexual
gadgets." Most of all, he's "offended" that a
shorter star wasn't cast in the Loveless role,
originally played by 3'8" actor Michael Dunn.
"That part should have been played by a
dwarf," he insists. "I was friends with Michael,
and if he were alive today he'd be furious."
Branagh sends his apologies. "I guess coming
from the classical theater I have a different
perspective," says the Shakespearean actor. "I
mean, we're always redoing the classics. But I
am sorry he's upset. Maybe he'll feel differently
after he sees the movie. I am quite small in it.
I'm half my usual size."
Anonymous Internet item, Sept. 2, 1998:
"There was some sort of mishap today in
filming...on Wild Wild West. Apparently, a scene
calling for explosions and the destruction of a
small town went awry, and fire trucks were
called in from all around."
Sonnenfeld: "We always meant to burn down
that set, just not on the first day."
Sometimes bad buzz happens to good
movies--or at least popular ones. Remember
that grossly over-budget,
sinking-boat picture? The one that ended up
making a billion dollars? Conversely, sometimes
good buzz happens to movies that turn out to
be box office duds (see Election--nobody else
is). And then there are times when the buzz
gets it exactly right, which is how moviegoers
knew to run screaming from The Postman.
But buzz also works more subtly, without the
public ever hearing a word. Even when the hum
doesn't leave Hollywood--or finds its way to
the Internet, which has become Buzz Central
over the past few years, with dozens of Web
pages dishing industry dirt--the drone can be a
powerful force. Because while audiences aren't
always listening, the studios are. And what
they hear can change how they market their
own products. Good buzz can nudge a studio to
push harder on an easy-to-overlook film (it
happened with Babe), while bad buzz can send
the suits scurrying for cover.
If West's buzz had been better, for instance,
it's possible Warner Bros. wouldn't have sold its
TV rights to CBS for a measly $6 million (Men in
Black, in contrast, sold for $70 million). It might
have also prevented that mix-up during West's
first test screening last spring, when the studio
pulled a bait and switch on the audience,
promising a sneak peek at The Matrix, then
unspooling West instead.
"Everyone was excited about seeing The Matrix
because it was being released the next week
and all the ads had been out," Sonnenfeld
remembers. "So when they were told they were
seeing a rough cut of a Will Smith comedy they
started booing. They booed the announcement,
not the movie," he's careful to clarify, "but it
was still unfortunate. It made no sense."
Warner execs wouldn't comment on the
incident--or any other part of this story--but
the blunder clearly stirred the ether. It was not
long before the press started reporting all the
buzz that was fit to print. Even Smith--possibly
the most easygoing actor ever to ask for $20
million a picture--got annoyed at the coverage.
"I really couldn't get a grip on why someone
would print that stuff," he says. "It was
obviously wrong. What got printed was blatant
Blatant is putting it a bit strongly. After all,
those reshoots did take place: "I call them
additional photography because we didn't
reshoot anything--we just shot more stuff,"
Sonnenfeld spins. "We did 10 days of additional
material. We needed some more comedy and
some more action. They did the same thing on
Star Wars. They did it on the Austin Powers
sequel. It's not unusual."
Hayek wasn't involved in the reshoots (er,
additional photography), but she was aware of
the press problems they caused. In fact, she's
still following the film's buzz trail. "I read
something in the newspaper today," she offers
helpfully. "It said I was 'underused' in the
movie. I'll show you the article, because I want
you to write that again. I would really
Don't mention it.
Anonymous Web review, June 5, 1999: "This
movie is a must-see for anyone with any taste
at all. If you don't like this movie you have to
be the most boring, unimaginable [sic],
unintelligent person there is on earth. Wild Wild
West was 100 times better than Star Wars and
is the movie of the year!"
Anonymous Web review, June 1999: "There was
no plot, no interesting characters, lousy
chemistry between the main actors, and barely
ANY Salma Hayek."
Controlling buzz isn't any more feasible than
controlling the weather. And yet, like Sir August
De Wynter in that Avengers movie that nobody
saw because of (richly deserved) bad buzz,
some crazy nut always tries. One method of
buzz control is to shroud your production in
total secrecy--but that strategy can backfire,
stirring up more rumors than it stifles (buzz
abhors a vacuum). Only reclusive cinema gods
who happen to die of a heart attack after
assembling a final cut can really pull it off
without a hitch (we're still waiting for reliable
buzz on Eyes Wide Shut).
Another, far more diabolical tactic is to plant
bogus buzz. Turns out, for example, that a lot
of those anonymous test-screening reviews on
the Internet are actually composed on studio
computers. Fortunately, they're easy to spot
(they usually contain phrases like "100 times
better than Star Wars"). More alarmingly,
Sonnenfeld has heard that some of the
negative buzz appearing on the Web is also
being composed at the studios, e-mailed into
the ether to sabotage the competition.
It's a sad day in Hollywood when you don't
know who not to not trust anymore. Sonnenfeld
even proposes that some of the negative buzz
on West was seeded by suits inside Warner
who wanted his movie to fail for internal
political reasons. "I can't prove it," he says,
"but I think there was someone [at the studio]
who wanted this movie to be perceived as in
trouble. Someone who had an interest in it
being perceived that way."
Could be. But whoever the traitor was, he or
she had lots of help. One bit player on the film
uploaded a daily diary from the set onto an
anonymous website, dissing the actors ("Kevin
Kline is his usual standoffish self"),
second-guessing the wardrobe ("The new drab
costumes are quite ratty looking"), and
exposing the film's every production hiccup
("The shoot has been postponed another few
days"). The mole did have nice things to say
about the catering, however.
And the press did its part too, following the
film's mishaps and accidents as closely as
Kosovo's--although in this case the only one
who ever seemed to get hurt was Sonnenfeld.
There was the day he challenged Smith to a
contest, for example, and ended up breaking his
hand. More dramatically, there was his plane
crash last February as he was flying to L.A. for
postproduction meetings with Peters. His leased
Gulfstream II lost control on landing, smashed
into the runway, and took out five other
aircraft before finally slamming into a tree.
"A strangely calming experience," he says now.
"I just sat there and thought, 'And now I'm
going to die.' But then the jet stopped and I
looked out the window and saw all this gasoline
spewing all over the place. And my flight crew
jumped out of the plane without me, ran right
past me without telling me anything, leaving me
behind with this broken china and strewn
Jeez, what a year he's having. After all he's
been through, you can't help but want to be
nice to the guy. So here's some helpful
pre-buzz for his next film, a Muhammad Ali
biopic he's planning on making with Smith. We
hear it'll be underbudget, ahead of schedule,
and entirely accident-free.
But don't believe everything you read.