From Entertainment Weekly
February 12, 1993
By Mark Harris
Additional reporting by Michael Szymanski and Jeffrey Wells.
Photo credits unknown.

Silence Go to any movie house where The Crying Game is playing, and halfway through the film, at the moment of its most incendiary revelation, you hear...nothing. An isolated murmur or whisper may rise into the darkness, but don't expect any mass gasp attacks or epidemic giggles. Instead, the theater fills with the sound of breath being held, of assumptions being upended, of everything you think you've seen until then going cockeyed. "The only thing you hear," says producer Stephen Woolley, "is the whir of people's brains, taking it all in."

What they're taking in is the straight-outta-nowhere hit of the season, a critical and popular success fueled by a fine cast, Neil Jordan's delicately wrought script and direction, and one pick-your-jaw-up-off-the-floor stunner of a plot twist. With the help of a shrewd publicity campaign by the film's distributor, Miramax, the secret at the center of The Crying Game has become the year's most talked-around moment in the year's most talked-about movie. Millions of filmgoers - even the 10 percent who, according to Woolley, correctly guess the surprise in advance - have kept their mouths shut about Game's carnival-ride story while trumpeting its virtues to everyone they know.
As a result, though The Crying Game is still only on 190 screens, it has already grossed $12.3 million, a spectacular sum for a low-budget, Irish/British-made art film with no big stars, an IRA terrorist for its hero, and a central romance that's way off the track beaten by scores of Hollywood formula films. With half a dozen major critics' prizes to its credit and Jordan's recent Best Director nomination from the Director's Guild of America, a Best Picture Oscar nod is now a strong possibility when the nominations are announced Feb. 17.

In the wake of the movie's unparalleled word of mouth, Miramax may expand its run to 800 screens this spring, hoping to crack $25 million - a glass ceiling for art-house movies that has not been been reached even by such recent hits as The Players and Howard's End. The Crying Game has also become the darling of Hollywood, with fans ranging from Madonna ("It was my favorite movie of last year," she says. "It was great writing"), to CAA head Michael Ovitz, who held a screening in Aspen over Christmas that drew Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, and Barry Levinson. In L.A., the guest list for screenings has included Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, and Sean Penn, but it's even more A list to own a promotional video of the movie - a talisman that's as much a certification of cool as your own cameo in The Player.
Considering that not one American (or British) studio was willing to give 2 cents (or tuppence) to finance The Crying Game in advance, the irony of this fairy-tale ending is not lost on the film's 42-year-old writer-director. An intense, saturnine Dubliner, Jordan says he likes to make movies in which "everything you assume about the world turns out not to be true."

Those aren't the kind of stories Hollywood embraces. "Think of all the things that would have been done wrong in the film if Hollywood had its way," says Jordan, his deep-set eyes darkening into a scowl. "They would have tried to explain away the political background. They would have tried to soften the racial tension. And they would have demanded that the part of Dil (the film's mystery woman) be changed in any number of ways. And those different, difficult elements are what make people go see the movie."
That there's even a movie for people to see is something of a miracle. "The first two days of shooting, I was out there with my credit card getting money from the bank and saying, 'Can you just hold on? Will 20 (British pounds sterling) do?'" recalls producer Woolley. "I was broke. I didn't let anyone on the movie know this, of course." But as cameras rolled in 1991, the bankruptcy of its distribution company, Palace Pictures, was only the latest in a series of obstacles that stalled the film for nearly 10 years.

The earliest hurdle was a simple case of writer's block. In 1983, Jordan found himself completely stymied while writing a three-page outline for a film he was then calling Soldier's Wife, a melodrama about a man's relationship with the lover of a soldier he had held captive. "I was interested in telling the story of a man who wanted a woman only because another man had had her - a homoerotic obsession," Jordan says, "but I couldn't quite finish it."

Instead, the director went on to make Mona Lisa, a 1986 art-house hit that won him a ticket to Hollywood. His first big-studio venture, TriStar's supernatural comedy High Spirits, was an embittering disaster, recut by the studio and reviled by critics. "It drove me insane," he says, "You can't believe that this level of interference can happen in your work." Badly disheartened, Jordan made only one more Hollywood film, the mild We're No Angels, before returning to Ireland and independent moviemaking.

Soldier's Wife gathered dust until 1991, when Jordan finally came up with the crucial twists that turned his story in The Crying Game (a title drawn from the 1964 Dave Berry song, rerecored for the film by Boy George). He got a commitment from Irish actor Stephen Rea, a frequent colleague whose work was largely unknown in America, to play the IRA soldier Fergus. Forest Whitaker (Bird) signed on to play the film's captive, and Miranda Richardson (Damage) took the part of Fergus' fellow IRA kidnapper. The pivotal role of Dil was the hardest to cast. "We combed London, " says Woolley, "We tested and tested for that role."

Eventually, the producers discovered Jaye Davidson, a 24-year-old London fashion assistant who got word of the audition at a party for British director Derek Jarman. "I wanted to be as professional and realistic as possible," says Davidson, who had no previous acting experience. "What surprised me was how difficult it was - much harder than it looks on TV or in the movies. But I knew that if I wasn't coming across correctly, Neil would tell me."

"Jaye brought a lightness and gentle nature to the role," says Woolley. "Other performers seemed to be exaggerated."
Woolley and Jordan drew up a modest budget for The Crying Game - about $5 million - and in the spring of 1991, they went looking for cash. At studio after studio, executives read the script, smiled politely, and slammed the door in their faces.
"There was absolutely no appetite for the film in the script stage," says ICM president Jeff Berg, Jordan's agent. "It was perceived as a political thriller with a troubling and confusing romance." Even Miramax, a company known for taking on difficult projects, declined to put up any money in advance. "It wasn't clear how the casting and other elements were going to come off, " says Miramax cochairman Bob Weinstein. "There are delicate roles that have to be deftly managed."

"Maybe if I'd cast it with, I don't know, Mickey Rourke or somebody, I would have gotten money," says Jordan. "But in a recession, timidity rules."

Forced to postpone production from July to November of 1991, Woolley frantically began looking for investors. "It was a true nightmare," says Rea. "I knew that I wanted to do the film, but I had to turn down a lot of other work." By the time The Crying Game began two months of shooting in Ireland and England, the film's entire cast and crew agreed to defer 30 percent of their salaries until profits were recouped. "My distribution company went bust," says Woolley, who has produced four of Jordan's other feature films. "I had to borrow from everywhere."

But the money came with strings attached. Unhappy with The Crying Game's ending, investors demanded that Jordan write a different, more optimistic final scene. "I wrote a fake ending that I knew would make them happy," says Jordan. "And I had to shoot it just in order to show them that it didn't work, so I could get permission to go back and shoot my original ending." The unused wrap-up involved an out-of-the-blue cash windfall and an escape to Barbados for some of the characters. "I didn't enjoy doing (the alternative ending)," says Rea. "And maybe that came through on film."

With it's original ending restored, The Crying Game looked better on celuloid than it had on paper. Miramax, which had been cool to the script, eagerly purchased distribution rights for just over $1 million, unveiling the movie at the Telluride Film Festival last September. "The audience at Telluride was older and rather wealthy," recalls Woolley, "And The Crying Game is a movie about people we usually demonize as terrorists and deviants. We had no idea how the audience would react." When the closing credits rolled, however, the filmmakers were relieved to hear applause followed by an excited what-the-was-that? buzz.

Faced with publicizing a movie with an unpublicizable plot, Miramax sent a statement to reviewers asking them to keep the story's unexpected turns a secret. The critics cooperated when the film opened in New York and Los Angeles over Thanksgiving weekend - but, more significantly, so did the moviegoers. The Sanctity of the Secret soon became a badge of good behavior among discerning viewers. "In the first weeks of the movie," says Miramax's Weinstein, "I went to the theater and said, 'What happens in this movie? I heard there's a big secret.' And people would be violent! They'd say, 'I'm not going to ruin it for you - see it for yourself!'"

Those words are gold to a film's box office chances, so it's no surprise that in two months at New York's strenuously trendy Angelika Film Center, The Crying Game has already sold a record $600,000 worth of tickets. But as the film's release has been broadened, it has done impressively in such markets as Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, where its $81,000 second week was an all-time high for the Landmark's chain's Uptown Theater. "The film has broken records for us in several cities, " says David Swanson, Landmark's vice president of marketing. "And in no case was its first week its biggest week. We don't see that often. It's very strange."

Even within the movie industry, the secret - to tell or not to tell - has become a playful hot topic. Lily Tomlin, appearing on TV's CableACE Awards, teasingly threatened to spill the secret on the air. (She didn't.) And at this year's New York Film Critics Circle dinner, where Jordan's screenplay and Richardson's performance won prizes, director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) took the podium and said with a a laugh, "I love that even here, the secret of The Crying Game is being honored! Is there anyone here who hasn't seen it?"

That kind of visibility is already giving the film's astounded performers an introduction to the fast track. Directors and producers are wooing Rea, 50, who won this year's National Society of Film Critics Best Actor award and is now mirror-imaging his role by playing a hostage in Broadway's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. "Honestly, I don't know that much about Hollywood, " says Rea, who lives in Belfast. "But I guess I'm going to get an agent." And Davidson, who "never thought I'd be offered anything else worth doing - I didn't think I was very good," now admits that "there are some feelers out, some interesting things." Not to mention a possible Academy Award nomination. "What are the Academy Awards?" say the soft-spoken, currently unemployed Briton. "Oh the Oscars? Well, who wouldn't love to go?"

The Crying Game's success has also given Jordan an unlikely second go-around in Hollywood. David Geffen has signed him to rewrite and direct the forever-in-development screen version of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire for Warner Bros.; Daniel Day-Lewis and Brad Pitt have been mentioned to costar. And Columbia is seeking to sign him to adapt Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. But in some cases, says Jordan, "the studios still won't make the films I want to do." An "18th-century gangster film" called Jonathan Wild" has been tough to get going," he says. And a script about Irish revolutionary Michael Collins - "the best piece of writing I've ever done" - now dwells in the shadow of a competing Collins biography being developed by Kevin Costner. "Warner Bros. commissioned mine nine years ago," says Jordan, "and they keep saying, maybe next year. Even though this film is a big hit, nothing changes."

But this time, studios may be more willing to give Jordan room. "He has hit an emotional nerve with his movies," says Sam Kitt, director of production at Universal Pictures. "And when you count Mona Lisa, you have to say that somebody who can do it more than once has something special to offer."

"(The movie) succeeds because it's original," says Brandon Tartikoff, former Paramount chairman. "We're in a romantic age and it's a twisted love tale."

"Neil has a cohesive vision, and most movies don't," says Janet Yang, vice president of production at Oliver Stone's Ixtlan Corp. "His failures - his Hollywood films - are perfect proof that we have a lot to lose when filmmakers are forced into the Hollywood frame of mind."

Indeed, Jordan's description of his own work would probably get him tossed out of most pitch meetings. "The films I make are unusual need special handling, " he says. "They start with realistic premises and lead to seemingly unrealistic conclusions. And I'm interested the way politics, racial issues, and sexual issues impinge on that journey."

But that low-concept sell - what Rea calls "a very personal, very quiet story" - is what's packing them in right now. The Crying Game's American success may even lead to a rerelease in Britain, where the film performed only tepidly when it opened last October. "Isn't it great that not only do Americans like movies but they want to discover movies?" says Jordan, almost abashed. "The fact that this one seems to be taking off..." he laughs. "It's remarkable. Unbelievable. You're a great country you know?"