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Even Cowboys get the Blues

WILL SMITH is back in the saddle, FIGHTING THE BAD GUYS-- AND BAD PRESS. From reported reshoots to a ballooning budget, here's how WILD WILD WEST was buzzed.

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 over Hollywood."

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 hear it.

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 West?

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 Hollywood."

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 while."

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 me dies."

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 shouldn't.

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, way-behind-schedule, destined-for-disaster 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 lies."

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 appreciate it."

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 punch-each-other-as-hard-as-you-can 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 luggage...."

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.