Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Malice In Wonderland

By Ray Pride

MARCH 15, 1999:  "Cruel Intentions" at first sounds like a low order of teensploitation trash.

It's actually sexy, malicious fun, transposing the seventeenth-century French Court intrigues of "Dangerous Liaisons" to a moneyed bunch of pretty-faced prep-school brats. (Among them, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reece Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe and the invaluable Selma Blair, mingling shameless giddiness with guileless beauty.) None of the commotion - as they double-cross and triple-cross and plot foul intrigues against one another - is believable for a second, and that's just fine: writer-director Roger Kumble wants to have his comic way with the teen movie, and does.

The 35-year-old debut director is a protégé of the Farrelly Brothers and went through years of development hell - "Four years ago, during the Oscars, I was rewriting [replacement dialogue for the mouths of] 'The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers'," and wrote a pair of plays that satirized his own stumblebum career.

Kumble's L.A.-produced satires, "Pay or Play" and "d-girls" (which starred David Schwimmer) got him the notice his comedy script writing hadn't. When his low-budget script of "Dangerous Liaisons" fell into the hands of producer Neil H. Moritz, a partnership was born. Moritz wanted to make a teen movie different from the "I Know What You Did Last Summer" that cemented his career; Kumble wanted people to know he had a career.

"I got the idea when I saw Todd Solondz' 'Welcome to the Dollhouse'," he says of his more elegantly mounted, $10 million movie. "At the same time, I happened to be reading 'Les Liaisons.' I was thinking, these characters are so awful, and Solondz' are in junior high! It took me a few years just to figure out how to update an eighteenth-century novel. It's fun exploring how cruel high school kids can be. When I was doing research for this - it was very lazy research, I just watched 'The Real World.' Then I'd listen to 'Loveline‚' and go on the Internet and observe chat rooms. Kids know a lot. There was this article in New York magazine , 'Sex and the High School Girl' which terrified me about ever having children. So I knew I wasn't doing anything that hadn't been done before."

Kumble had a few bad ideas along the way. "Yeah, at first I thought, instead of being letters [like in the novel], it'll be e-mail and I thought I was getting too hip. And it would get away from the period flavor in the decoration of the film. So even though it was a resource for me, I attack the Internet: 'E-mail is for geeks and pedophiles,' as Sarah says."

Kumble had his reservations about casting Gellar, because "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has made her such a pop culture icon, but Gellar was adamant about showing her acting range. Even to the point of - gasp! - dying her blond hair black, and delivering most, if not all, of the dialogue Kumble wrote, which includes such drop-dead mouthfuls as a full close-up "I want to fuck your brains out." "She couldn't wait to say these lines. And they were all helpful. I approached it like theater, we got together at my house and figured out what worked and what didn't.

"I've always been a fan of seeing classic works reworked," he says, ticking off the recent commercial successes that got his movie greenlighted. "I was a fan of 'Clueless,' I loved what Amy Heckerling did with that, and 'Romeo + Juliet' was just brilliant, y'know, keeping the same text but being more visually interesting. The reason this story has been made three times is because it's just such a compelling story. I did soften it, [one character] doesn't die, I don't give anyone smallpox. But I always wanted the dialogue one notch above reality. It's interesting to hear kids talk this way, without it being very pop culture, as much as I like that kind of writing."

Is Kevin Williamson that writer? "Yeah, sure. I give Kevin all the credit for starting this genre. Anyone who tries to rip him off gets their butt kicked. He's the one who can do what he does. Some appreciate it, others say, 'We don't talk this way, this isn't real.' Well, I'm not intending it to be real, it's an artistic piece. I didn't want to write a script that talked down to kids, but spoke above their level."

While Kumble follows the canny line laid down by producer Moritz, who believes that for teen success, you keep adults off screen and get them off quickly if you absolutely must have them there, he also believes the film isn't just for kids looking for some well-appointed dirty kicks this Friday: "If anything, I was trying mock absentee parenting. People say these kids are so awful, yet the only references to the parents are like, 'How is your gold-digging whore of a mother enjoying Bali?' I wrote that kind of line to say, this is what happens when the folks aren't home."


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