Like the best making-of books, Jane Hamsher’s Killer Instinct(now out in trade paperback from Broadway, $13) is less about a specific movie — in this case,Natural Born Killers— than it is about a stew of egomaniacal, ambitious, or inept personalities boiling over. It makes for tasty reading, though I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be there. Hamsher produced NBK with her business partner Don Murphy (whom she clearly adores as a friend and highly respects as a partner, even though she spends half the book goofing on him); she was the logical left brain, he was the hot-headed right brain, and they were surrounded by no-brains — including the touted geniuses Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, whom Hamsher characterizes as textbook cases of arrested development.
Hamsher is a witty writer, sometimes devastatingly so; it seems to me that women who struggle in power positions in Hollywood always have sharper senses of humor (perhaps out of necessity) than the analogous male players. She often appears to be the only sane person working on the movie, though she admits that eating ‘shrooms with Oliver and company in the desert wasn’t impeccable judgment on her part. The book chronicles the making of NBK from its humble genesis as a nearly-forgotten Tarantino script to its red-hot post-O.J. release in August 1994, when it scandalized critics and tantalized Gen-Xers. By then, Hamsher felt as if she’d been through combat — a good way to describe working with Oliver Stone, who likes to stir up conflict and emotion on his sets.
The production, in retrospect, reads like a recipe for catastrophe. Filming the riot scenes in a real Chicago prison, with real prisoners, resulted in a real prison riot — well, duh … did nobody see that coming? (In the film, when Tommy Lee Jones gets pegged in the head with a milk carton and the milk drips down his face, that was real — a prisoner chucked the milk, it hit Tommy Lee, he didn’t break character, and Stone kept it in the film.) Hamsher has 20-20 hindsight, but she convinces us that, with a chaotic project like NBK, it becomes almost impossible to tell what’s insane and what’s just business as usual. At its best, the book is about two ambitious young producers who attached themselves to a script they liked and ended up enduring the ultimate baptism by fire.
Oddly enough, the people you’d expect a producer to slam in a Hollywood memoir — the stars — are gently treated. Cynics may say that Hamsher just doesn’t want to jeopardize her star relationships, but in this case she seems genuine; her descriptions of the stars don’t seem out of character for them. Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, and particularly Robert Downey Jr. are shown as nice, down-to-earth people who get sucked into the vortex that is NBK. Hamsher reserves her venom for the men in charge.
Hamsher’s take on Stone is realistically hot-and-cold: sometimes she hates him, sometimes she kind of likes the guy (Stone knows how to turn on the charm when he wants to). Her take on Quentin is pretty consistently disdainful, but Quentin is a saint compared to some of the friends surrounding him, like Rand Vossler. Eventually credited as a co-producer on NBK (for doing nothing — he was given the credit, basically, to pacify him), Vossler is painted here as an egotistical crybaby who threatened to hold up Hamsher and Murphy in court so he could regain the rights to NBK and direct it himself. According to Hamsher, both Stone and Tarantino are talented men irreparably damaged by all the yes-men and kiss-asses surrounding them. (There’s a bit of mournful respect for Roger Avary, who, it turns out, is pretty much responsible for Quentin’s career: he wrote a script called The Open Road, which Tarantino expanded into a monstrous 400-page epic from which he later cannibalized almost every script he’s written. If you want back-up for an argument that Tarantino is little more than a parrot for other people’s work, this is the book you want in your corner.)
Killer Instinct is sinfully readable; I rocketed through it in two days, and when it was over I leaned forward a little, as if I were in a speeding car that slammed on the brakes — I wanted more. Well, Hamsher and Murphy are now producing the upcoming Apt Pupil, a Stephen King adaptation with its own controversy and problems (related to whether director Bryan Singer coerced teenage boys to appear naked in a shower scene). Maybe that mess will yield its own tell-all book, and I hope Hamsher survives to tell the tale.