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How ‘Sexual Perversity’ turned into ‘About Last Night ...’

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Updated: March 14, 2014 8:09AM



A remake of the hit 1986 romantic comedy “About Last Night ...” opens nationwide on Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day. In advance of its debut, several of the original (and partially Chicago-shot) film’s driving forces talked about its often tortuous but ultimately fulfilling journey of David Mamet’s play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” from the stage of Chicago’s Apollo Theater to hundreds of screens nationwide.

Stuart Oken, producer and Apollo Theater co-founder

I was managing director of the Organic Theater [Company] before the Apollo, and the Organic Theater is the place where “Sexual Perversity” started. But it had a six-week run and then it was a new production that went to New York. So Chicago only saw it for six weeks. So I was able to kind of go, “Wow, there’s an underdeveloped opportunity. There’s something that should really be brought back to Chicago.” But it just didn’t come together. The time hadn’t arrived for that to happen yet.

After their first couple of productions tanked financially, however, the moment was right.

Jason Brett, producer and Apollo Theater co-founder

We had investors [in the theater] and we were in a little bit of panic mode. We needed a hit. And everything came together and it just exploded. It was an incredible success and it was exactly what we needed at the theater.

I had seen Jim Belushi onstage at Second City, and I was absolutely stunned. And [Second City co-founder] Bernie Sahlins was a mentor of Stuart’s and mine. And Bernie knew I was going to do “Sexual Perversity,” and after I saw Jim Belushi, I said, “That’s the guy. That’s Bernie Litko.”

Stuart Oken

[Then-Second City director] Sheldon Patinkin had just moved back to Chicago and was at a place where he was interested in [directing] it. And so the stars aligned.

The show ran about six months in Chicago, and we were interested in making the move into film.

We had investors who had invested in the theater. We went to a few of those guys who liked the play and we convinced them to give us the money we needed [high five figures to low six figures] to buy out another producer [David De Silva of “Fame” fame] who owned the movie rights to “Sexual Perversity.”

Jason Brett

We didn’t know the rights were clouded, meaning that they weren’t without some parts that had to be satisfied — including, apparently, that [Paramount Pictures head of production] Don Simpson already had a whole history with the project and De Silva, who had contracted with Mamet to write the screen version of the play. I’m told that all Mamet did was change stage directions into camera directions, and that was the script that he handed in. And apparently Paramount threw it back at De Silva and said, ‘What is this, a joke?’

[Through a representative, Mamet declined to participate in this story and offered no answers to emailed questions regarding his involvement with the film adaptation of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”]

Stuart Oken

When we got the rights, [they] came with a David Mamet script ... it was just the play. My memory is we went back to Mamet and said, “Would you like to work on a real screenplay?” And he said, “That is the real screenplay.’ And we said, “No, that’s not gonna fly.” And he said, “Well, that’s the only one I’m gonna do.” And we said, “OK, we’re going to move on.” And that’s when we hired Bernie and Tim and Denise.

Tim Kazurinsky, screenwriter

[Denise and I] did the rewrite on “My Bodyguard” for [director] Tony Bill under the aegis of Second City and Bernie Sahlins in ’79. And that worked out really well; the movie was a hit. And Bernie, of course, mentored everybody. He was mentoring Jason and Stuart, so he lined us up to write “Sexual Perversity.”

Stuart Oken

After a certain amount of time working with Bernie [who bowed out early in the process], Tim and Denise on the script, we sent it to a friend of ours named Dan Sherkow, who was a vice president at Paramount, and Dan sent it to Don Simpson.

Jason Brett

Don loved it. This was the first draft [Tim and Denise] wrote. We did a lot of internal work, but we were starting off with great source material, two really terrific writers, and we got lucky. They took a stage play and made it into a movie — and they made it into a love story. And that was what we intended it to be as opposed to just sort of a bittersweet statement on the impossibility of relationships.

Tim Kazurinsky

I think it was Mamet’s most Jewish play. I thought, “They don’t have to be Jewish. Why mention religion?”

We wanted to make it pretty much for anybody who was in the singles scene at that time anywhere on the planet. So we took away family, religion, ethnicity — whatever. We tried to make it a John Doe kind of thing. [Paramount] wanted everybody to see themselves in Danny and Debbie and Joan and Bernie.

Denise DeClue, screenwriter

[“Sexual Perversity”] didn’t seem like a Jewish script at all. It was just the names of the [characters]. And we didn’t have any trouble making it as universal as possible, because it didn’t seem to be a microcosm of any ethnic particulars.

Between 1979 and 1985, by Kazurinsky’s count, he and DeClue did 14 rewrites. During that span, Kazurinsky starred for three seasons on “Saturday Night Live” and in several “Police Academy” flicks and Paramount honcho Don Simpson tried to “attach” John Belushi, Bill Murray and Nick Nolte. Director Jonathan Demme came on board just before the project stalled, Simpson was replaced by current DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and eventually everything migrated to Tri-Star Pictures.

Jason Brett

Don Simpson tried to insert John Belushi into the movie, and packages of John Belushi and Bill Murray, and Bill Murray and Nick Nolte. Don would call me in this cocaine-addled state at 1 o’clock in the morning Chicago time, which was kickoff time for parties at his house in LA. At one point he was adamant about [attaching] John Belushi. But we saw Jim do it every night of the week for months, and there was nobody else in my mind that was going to play that role. He was born to play it. I’d say, “Don, it’s Jim. So let’s meet with guys to play opposite Jim.” This was my master class in how to get a film done, so I didn’t realize you don’t say no to the head of film production. But I kept saying no.

Denise DeClue

We went through having hopes and having them dashed. And then someone else would be in charge of it and we’d make some more changes and the script got better. We didn’t know that much about scriptwriting when we started. We learned while doing.

Tim Kazurinsky

So many people had shots at it and tried to get it up and going. It was a long row to hoe.

Denise DeClue

My son, who was then 6, thought his mother rewrote “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” for a living, because that’s all he’d ever known me to be doing.

Stuart Oken

We were in over our head. After Jonathan Demme got involved [at Paramount], it started to be more real. Jason and I went to L.A. and spent the most incredible time with Jonathan. And we went, “Oh, my God, this guy’s going to make our movie. This is the guy. He gets it.” It was fantastic. And two weeks later, Jonathan wouldn’t return our calls and we didn’t know why. And gradually we found out he’d had a falling out with Don Simpson.

But that wasn’t the end of Demme’s involvement. His manager at the time, Arnold Stiefel (“a piece of work,” as per Brett), had a producing deal with Tri-Star Pictures, and before long Demme was back on board. He didn’t last, though, and was succeeded by a talented if untested young filmmaker who hailed from Chicago’s northern suburbs named Ed Zwick.

Jason Brett

It was Jonathan’s involvement in the project that really helped us get set up at Tri-Star.

Stuart Oken

Next thing we know, Demi Moore [who had just made a splash in the hit film “St. Elmo’s Fire,” with Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and others] wants to do the picture at Tri-Star. So now we were back in business.

Then Demme had a falling out with Tri-Star. Now we were back to not having a movie again.

[Demme did not respond to emailed questions.]

Jason Brett

[Tri-Star head] Victor Kaufman told Jonathan the film he wanted him to make was “Footloose” meets “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Or “Footloose” meets “The Breakfast Club.” Something like that. At that point Jonathan said, “I’m not the guy to direct the movie.” So he walked.

Stuart Oken

Ed had not done a feature, but he had done this thing on television called “Special Bulletin” that he had won an Emmy for. And, no small thing, he’d grown up on the north shore of Chicago and he was exactly our age. It was like we were family immediately.

So now [the film] has legs, but they wanted a star.

Jason Brett

Victor Kaufman wanted Rob Lowe in the movie, because his daughters were then tweenagers and crazy about Rob Lowe.

Stuart Oken

Rob was the condition of getting the movie made. Ed and Jason and I were told, “If you guys want to make this movie with Rob Lowe, we’ll make the movie.” And we said yes. And once we did, they gave us very much free rein. They just left us alone.

Jason Brett

There were a couple of things we were adamant about. One was using Jim Belushi and the other was shooting exteriors in Chicago. And we had not only a really talented young filmmaker at the beginnings of his career, but a native Chicagoan who knew how to put Chicago on film. And we had great fun shooting here.

It was the best kind of homecoming. We set up the trailers right around the corner from the Playboy Mansion [on North State].

Denise DeClue

The main thing I remember shooting in Chicago was the softball game in Grant Park. And it got later and later in the year before they were starting and they were going to shoot that first, bu the leaves were falling off the trees. And that’s a summer game. But I think they spray-painted trees, they brought in leaves — they did something. They painted the grass. It had turned brown by the time they shot it, but it didn’t look that way in the movie.

Jason Brett

There’s nobody else in the world that understands how we play softball here. And we had to get Rob to put himself right in front of that ball.

Tim Kazurinsky

For the entire shoot I was up in Toronto running around as a no-neck policeman in “Police Academy 4.” Or 3. I can’t remember. I had two days off and that’s when I flew to L.A. to be on set and do my scene in the movie. So that’s all the input I had.

Denise DeClue

By the time it’s shooting, my kid’s about 8. Well, I take him to dailies, and the dailies they were showing that day was the bedroom scene between Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, over and over and under and up and above, and all the stuff that didn’t make the movie. My little boy’s sitting there seeing what Mommy does. Why couldn’t it have been the softball scene?

At long last, everything was going swimmingly. Until…

Jason Brett

The Southern distributors told the distribution arm of the studio that they weren’t going to put the title on the marquee. They were hung up about sexual deviancy. They weren’t getting the irony in the title, obviously, and so they just refused to do it. We were in the midst of doing the ad campaign and then they told us we had to change the title. Really? First of all, we paid a lot of money for that title! And we knew that title was part of audience intrigue and attraction and that it works. And the literary value of the title and the irony of the statement being made by the piece are essential. “No, you’ve got to change the title.”

Stuart Oken

We thought, “How could you guys pay the amount of money you paid for the rights and then give up the most commercial title imaginable?”

Tim Kazurinsky

It was called “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” the entire time until it was done, and then the networks would not run advertising for something with such a salacious title. At that time, in ’86, none of the networks would allow ads for a film with that title. So they had to change the title.

Denise DeClue

My mother could never understand [the title]. We just called it “that Mamet play,” because you can’t say those words. She thinks it’s about sexual perversion. “Oh, my god! My daughter! What could this be?”

Stuart Oken

Sexual perversity implied some kind of perverted idea. Of course, sexual perversity as Mamet perceived it probably meant the way that young people confuse sex and love. But it was a million-dollar title and they gave it away.

Jason Brett

I remember Ed Zwick and I [staying] late in the offices, kicking around many titles, and “About Last Night ...” was one of them.

Stuart Oken

We went through hundreds of titles. Everyone did. We just went back and forth on everything. The studio had lists, and we hired outside people to have lists. Ed did. And then we sat around forever and this was the best we could come up with. It was like, How do you name your child once they’re born? You’ve already called it something. In our case, we called it “Sexual Perversity” for five or six years. Now we have to call it something else?

Tim Kazurinsky

I had trouble remembering it. I had to write it down on a slip of paper. I’m like, “What kind of title is this?” I kind of like it now, because that ellipses kind of begs for revisionist thinking. But we would have killed to go with the title “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

When “About Last Night ...” hit theaters in early July 1986, moviegoers flocked to see it and the box office haul eventually totaled nearly $39 million [on a budget of $9 million]. The movie was a bona fide hit — and a career springboard for several of those who’d seen it through.

Denise DeClue

Roger Ebert gave it a great review. I was buying a farm in Wisconsin, and the guy who was making the loan for the mortgage said, “What do you do?” and I said, “I write movies.” He said, “Anything I might have seen?” “ ‘About Last Night...’ ” That guy came back the next day and said, “Are you sure that’s all the money you want?”

Stuart Oken

It’s so hard to make anything come together, and in some ridiculously naïve way — knowing as little as we did and working as hard as we did. [But] people were drawn to us. And they knew we were authentic.

Tim Kazurinsky

Credit to Stuart and Jason, who did not let go of this. They bulldogged this thing, and God bless ’em, because they got it made.

Jason Brett

Stuart and I quickly got what are called “first-look” deals, and so as young producers we suddenly were on a movie lot. And we immediately went into the development of a [never made] sequel for “About Last Night ...” and had [several other] projects in development. And I started to write and everything was starting to fire on all cylinders.

Stuart Oken

As a producer, I made three movies after that before I ended up back in the theater, and I never, ever had anywhere near as much fun as I had making “About Last Night ...” I was very, very spoiled. It was the first and greatest film experience I ever had.



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