The latest parlor game in Hollywood isn't charades, but it sure feels like it. It involves old friends getting together in the hills and acting out, digital cameras capturing every tic and nuance, hoping to convey some larger meaning about humans struggling to communicate and connect. It's the same old game, with a new technological twist. It was inevitable that someone in "the Business" would make a movie like The Anniversary Party (opening in June), a moderately budgeted DV production written in five days and shot in 19 inside a mid-century modern glass house in the Hollywood hills, with A-list talent like Gwyneth Paltrow taking pay cuts to participate. Written, directed, produced, and starring Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the movie even incorporates a game of charades into its frenetic mix. But it transcends being a mere parlor game among well-connected celebrities and their friends-or even a vanity production-and manages to resonate with the seriocomic strains of real life.
"It just seemed right," Leigh says of her collaboration with Cumming, over hot bowls of borscht at the Russian Tea Room. "We're really symbiotic in a strange way, so incredibly comfortable with each other. When you think about it, we don't really know each other all that well-it's not like we've had a 10-year relationship." The two met on the set of Cabaret, Sam Mendes' Tony-winning Broadway revival that catapulted Scottish-born Cumming to instant celebrity status on these shores for his electrifying turn as the leering, lascivious emcee. Leigh took in a performance three years ago and went to congratulate her friend, Cabaret cast member and future Anniversary Party co-star John Benjamin Hickey, after the show. "I never really go backstage because I'm kind of shy," Leigh admits. "But I was so blown away, I had to tell Hickey how great it was. That was the first night I met Alan-I'd seen him in movies before and he always stuck out, in Emma and Romy & Michele's High School Reunion, especially."
That chance meeting became something else entirely when Cabaret's producers asked Leigh to take over the starring role as Sally Bowles when Natasha Richardson's contract expired. An unlikely friendship developed between two people who couldn't be more different in their personalities and styles of acting. "Alan has this tremendous fuckin' energy," Leigh says. "He can do a show, go out all night, do a shoot the next day, do the show again, then go home and order some sushi to go, eat it, take a book to bed, read it."
Leigh, for her part, is known for being more introverted and intense, based on her edgy performances in Single White Female, Georgia, and Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle, the latter of which would go on to influence The Anniversary Party in myriad ways: as a cast reunion (Paltrow, Jennifer Beals, Mina Badie, and Jane Adams all appeared in the 1994 ensemble biopic) and as a recreation of director Alan Parker's communal spirit during the shoot. "As people came into town, Alan would have these dinners," Leigh recalls. "Every night the table got bigger and bigger and bigger as more cast arrived-I always loved that, because it got us all close. On this film, everyone actually knew each other. Every night the first week of shooting we had dinner in a different place-a huge brunch on Sunday, and presents all the time."
Cumming whisks into the Russian Tea Room at this point, having just completed a matinee performance of the Noël Coward revival Design for Living, his much-anticipated return to the Broadway stage. He's clearly elated to see his co-star and collaborator; indeed, Cumming and Leigh come across more as giddy siblings than the romantic couple that the press has purported them to be. "In Cabaret it was different," Cumming explains, "because we didn't do the rehearsal process so intensely together-our working relationship was really onstage. Sally Bowles and the emcee never had much contact at all." The pair would see each other backstage and go out to dinner after performances, but it wasn't until Cumming traveled to Los Angeles and stayed with Leigh after she left Cabaret that the pair began discussing the collaboration that would become The Anniversary Party.
"Jennifer had just made a Dogme film in Africa," Cumming recalls, "and it had a lot to do with that-the speed you can work at and the freedom it allows you. We always wanted to do a project with a group of people we liked and all those circumstances made it seem possible that we could get something together quickly and easily." That Dogme film, Kristian Levring's The King is Alive, left a distinct impression on Leigh, spurring her interest in the new digital filmmaking medium. "I would tell Alan what an amazingly free experience it was," she says. "We only worked seven-hour days-that's a Danish tradition-and we shot the movie in six weeks. And I said, 'My God, if we had shot normal days we could have shot the film in three weeks. We could do a movie about things that we are going through, write it for our friends, and have it take place all in one night.'"
The Anniversary Party centers on Joe and Sally Therrian, a Hollywood power couple-he's a best-selling British author; she's an established actress of dubious talent-who reconcile after a year-long estrangement by throwing an anniversary fête for a few of their closest friends. As the guests arrive-a who's-who of the duo's own real-life social set, playing fictionalized roles written specifically for them-the party careens from the convivial to the uncomfortable, culminating in a tense breakdown sequence in the wee hours of the morning that plays out like an existential bout of charades. So convincing is the raw acting on display, that you're almost duped into thinking the party guests are falling to pieces in actuality.
Paltrow, who appeared in Emma with Cumming and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle with Leigh, portrays a twentysomething starlet who's been cast in the film adaptation of Therrian's best-selling novel-to Sally's overt jealousy. Kevin Kline turns up as an A-list actor who's also been cast in the film; his real wife, Phoebe Cates (who starred opposite Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High twenty years ago) plays his on-screen wife, Sally Therrian's best friend. The cast also includes Leigh's half-sister, Mina Badie, as the Therrians' starstruck but litigious next-door neighbor; John C. Reilly (who worked with Leigh on Dolores Claiborne) as an exhausted movie director; and a scene-stealing Jane Adams as his wife, a zonked-out, neurotic actress/mom teetering on the brink of nervous collapse. Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals, and John Benjamin Hickey round out the eclectic ensemble cast.
After outlining the project over several months, Cumming and Leigh holed up in her Los Angeles home, creating character sketches for industry friends and co-stars they'd worked with on past productions. "We came up with a vague story the first night," Cumming explains, "and then kind of embellished it. Before we started the film, we didn't actually have a screenplay, just a treatment. At one point we actually thought we'd do it with improvised dialogue and so we had a very strict plot and progression of scenes."
Surprisingly, the only improvised footage in the movie is an extended toast sequence in which the film's characters raise a glass to the Therrians' precarious future, although the visceral, confession-laden acting style might suggest otherwise. "We could hear the characters' voices because they were people we knew anyway," Cumming says. "When you're directing actors, you have to gain their trust, you have to find a way to communicate with them. But we already had that with the cast. That made it so much easier."
A few hits of Ecstasy didn't hurt either-Paltrow's character passes them out after the toast, a terrific conceit for a movie about people in the throes of miscommunication. The prolonged (and simulated, thank you very much) trip sequence around the swimming pool advances the movie deep into the night, prompting some of the characters' more naked tendencies to explode to the surface. "I had to give an Ecstasy workshop to some of the actors," says Cumming, "and I thought that was really important because I hate bad drug acting in films. Some people had done it, some people hadn't. From my knowledge of it," he laughs, with the wry look he's become famous for, "and from the things people have told me, I wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable." And everybody does look very comfortable.
The decision to shoot on DV also turned the set into a much calmer environment. "There are certain boundaries you have when you make a film, marks you have to hit," says Leigh. "Digital just takes it a step further, because you can have takes that go on for literally 90 minutes. And it's so fast. We used DV because it was a way to make the film really quickly and inexpensively." There were no trailers on the single-location set. When cast members weren't filming, they sat in the garden and ate, talked, laughed-no sweat. "Film is so expensive, and you're so aware of that all the time: If you fuck up, it's unusable," says Cumming, clearly enamored of their recent experiment in guerilla moviemaking. "On video," he adds, "if you fuck up, it's no big deal. You just get on with it."