Monday, 11 May 2015

The Sure Thing

The Sure Thing

A sure thing comes once in a life time….but the real thing lasts forever

Studio: Embassy Pictures :::::::::: Release Date: March 1st 1985
Director: Rob Reiner :::::::::: Starring: John Cusack, Daphne Zuniga
Budget: $4.5M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $10M
U.S Box Office: $18.1M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $40.3M

Walter 'Gib' Gibson is having no luck with the girls at his college. Sympathetic, his friend Lance offers him a 'Sure Thing' - a no-strings attached liaison with a beautiful girl. All he has to do is get across the country in time for Spring Break. But the path of true lust is never a smooth one, especially when Gib finds himself car sharing with Alison Bradbury, a girl with whom he had a disastrous study date...

In the early 1980s, the teenage movie genre was split into two factions. On the one side was raunchy comedy, spurred on by the massive success of Porky's and its many imitators. On the other was the more thoughtful comedy-drama, buoyed by the likes of John Hughes' Sixteen Candles and Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. These pictures attempted to give cinema-goers a more realistic portrayal of the struggles (and dreams) the modern teenager lived with - while also attempting to make money from the demographic that made up most of the audience. While Hughes was likely the most influential, and certainly the one recalled when talking about teen movies of the 1980s, that's not to say there weren't others of equal, if not better, standing. The same went for the stars of these pictures; Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall may have been synonymous with the time and the genre, but for many, no one played the awkward or lovelorn college student better than John Cusack. The actor would appear in a number of teen comedies throughout the decade, but it would be his work on The Sure Thing, that brought him to the public's attention.

The idea for The Sure Thing was based on the real-life experience of writer Steve L. Bloom. Opting to go to Brown College in New England, Bloom was regaled with tales of 'Wonderful Wednesday' by his friend Wayne, who attended college in Atlanta. Wayne explained that on the day groups of students would come together at a local hotel and get up to all sorts of no-good. Having listened to Bloom's tales of failure with the opposite sex, Wayne set him up with a 'sure thing' - a no-strings attached sexual encounter. All he had to do was get himself there for Spring Break and the rest would be taken care of. Sharing a car with a group of students, Bloom did indeed get himself there, though never eluded as to whether he met Wayne's sure thing. What it did do was inspire the young student to write a short story/treatment about someone placed in the same situation and the moral decisions he faced (The character at this point was named Richard Gowens). After graduating, Bloom went on to attend film school at USC, where he was joined by his old college roommate, Jonathan Roberts. While at Brown, Roberts (and others) had been responsible for writing the satirical guide, The Preppy Handbook.

The duo decided to write something together based around Bloom's Sure Thing story. They aligned themselves with Roger Birnbaum, an executive who was looking to make the jump to producing and began to pitch the idea to anyone who would listen. Studio after studio turned it down - in part because all the trio could present was an idea; they had no script or even examples of their writing, and nothing to prove they could turn in a useable screenplay. They had begun to resign themselves to the fact that the story would not get produced. Their last shot was Embassy Pictures, pitching to Jeff Young. According to Roberts, the pitch they gave turned out to be longer than the actual movie. Young was impressed by the enthusiasm and asked for the weekend to think about it, but Birnbaum knew that if they waited, the answer would be no. [In a documentary produced to celebrate the film's 20th anniversary, Embassy executive Lindsay Doran, who was in the room for the pitch, states that Young was indeed planning on turning the film down because while he liked the story, he felt it was too familiar and the writers too much of a risk. It also appeared very similar to It Happened One Night].

The fledgling producer asked the writers to step outside while he talked with Jeff Young on a one to one basis. In Birnbaum's own words, he all but got on his knees and begged Young to take a chance with The Sure Thing. He explained that the writers would work for scale, and produce as many drafts as Young felt were required - also at scale. The budget would be kept low ($4.5-6M) so even if things didn't work out, the risk for Embassy would be minimal. Birnbaum himself was taking a chance, he knew if The Sure Thing failed his career as a producer would be a short one. The second pitch worked, and Young agreed to take a chance on the writers and greenlight the picture. The duo set to work in the later half of 1982 on an outline script, with a second draft dated April 20th 1983. The script would get at least one more pass prior to shooting commencing, at the hands of the man Embassy Pictures had chosen to direct - Rob Reiner.

Rob Reiner was born in 1947 to legendary comedian/writer/director Carl Reiner and his wife Estelle. His first break into showbiz came via bit parts in such 1960s fare as Batman, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show, before he switched to writing for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. His big break would come in 1971, playing the role of Michael Stivic in the hit sitcom All in the Family. Reiner would appear in eight seasons of the show - 174 episodes in all, and win two Emmy awards, as well as being nominated five times for a Golden Globe. He also contributed three scripts to the show and continued to create and write other projects, famously co-scripting the first episode of Happy Days and directing the short TV film, Sonny Boy. After leaving the show in 1978 (All in the Family would run for another season and receive a four-season spin off in the guise of Archie Bunker's Place) Reiner began developing the rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, on which he would go on to make his feature directorial debut for Embassy Pictures.

It was while working on Spinal Tap that he received the script for The Sure Thing. Again, according to Embassy exec Lindsay Doran, Reiner was the only director they sent the script to, partly because they'd had a positive experience working with him on Spinal Tap. They also knew he'd be able to punch up the latest draft of the script with his own thoughts and ideas. The director got to work while still assembling the edit of his first movie (a monumental task given the huge amount of footage that was shot). Reiner took the script apart and began with the two main characters of Walter 'Gib' Gibson and Alison Bradbury. Instead of creating situations and dropping them in, he worked on expanding their depth, allowing the situations to become almost secondary to the emotional obstacles they faced.  Both Bloom and Roberts credit Reiner for improving all aspects of the script, from the dialogue and pace to the overall structure.

With all parties happy, work could begin on casting. The producers, which now included Henry Winkler, turned to Roger Birnbaum's friend Fred Roos for a recommendation. At the time Roos was working with Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Productions, but had previously been a casting director of some standing. He'd been responsible for casting The Godfather, Five Easy Pieces and American Graffiti, amongst many other movies and TV Shows, and recommended fellow Zoetrope employees Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson. With Reiner and Birnbaum, the duo discussed the budget, the script and the type of people they had in mind for each role. One of the biggest restrictions was budget - an established or in-demand player would cost a lot more to cast and may also come with baggage. A relative unknown would obviously be cheaper, but with limited experience, the casting team (and by extension the production itself) would not be sure what they would be getting. For the role of Gib, Anthony Edwards' name was put forward; at that point the young actor had already appeared in a number of roles, including a small part in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and a recurring role in the TV series, It Takes Two. He was also set to make a name for himself as Gilbert in Revenge of the Nerds, a picture set to debut in the summer of 1984.

At the same time another actor came in try out for the role and impressed the casting team enough for them to inform Rob Reiner that he should consider him for the part over Edwards. John Cusack was born into an acting family - his father was an actor and documentary film maker and siblings Susie, Ann, Bill and in particular, Joan, have all acted. At a young age John became part of the Piven Theatre Workshop, set up and run by the parents of one of his oldest friends, Jeremy. It wasn't long before he made his on-screen acting debut in the Rob Lowe/Andrew McCarthy comedy Class (it also marked the first of many collaborations with his sister Joan). He worked with John Hughes next, on Sixteen Candles, playing a geek friend of Anthony Michael Hall's Farmer Ted and followed that up with a part in Grandview U.S.A. The Sure Thing looked set to be his fourth film based on the recommendation of Jenkins and Hirshenson, but Rob Reiner wasn't interested and opted not to see Cusack audition.

The issue Reiner had with Cusack was his age - at 17 he was still classed as a minor, and that would restrict the amount of hours he could legally work on set each day. It might also extend the length of the shoot and that would raise costs. Anthony Edwards remained the front runner but while the director was in Los Angeles the casting team informed him that Cusack was also in town, and that while he may not be right for The Sure Thing, Reiner should meet with him with an eye to using him on a future project. The actor was still struggling to find work and had taken to sleeping on friend's couches between attending as many auditions as possible. When Cusack came in, the director was blown away and knew that he had to cast him over anyone else he'd seen - including Edwards. But the age issue still remained, and the shoot was set to commence a full three months before Cusack would turn eighteen. Delaying was out of the question, and the budget didn't allow for the kind of schedule that would be required to accommodate the restricted shooting hours.

The only solution, if they wanted Cusack as the lead, was for him to seek emancipation from his parents. That would mean they were not responsible for their son's wellbeing, his choices or his earnings - he would be for all intents and purposes (and more importantly in the eyes of law) an adult. It also allowed him to pick the hours he wished to work, enabling the production to proceed as if Cusack was 18. Roger Birnbaum agreed to become the actor's legal guardian during the shoot, and a teacher was on set most days to help Cusack continue his education. Even though Anthony Edwards was now out of the running, Reiner kept him board and set him to play Lance, Gib's best friend and the one who sets him up with The Sure Thing. Noted Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors was cast as Gib’s lecturer Professor Taub. Lindfors was already a major player in her native land before making the jump to Hollywood in the mid-1940s, and by the time she won the part in The Sure Thing, had already appeared in over sixty film and TV shows.

The small but essential role of Gary Cooper proved a difficult one to cast. Despite the character (and his partner) appearing on-screen for only a short amount of time, they couldn't find anyone who could make the role work. At one stage there was something of a crisis of confidence, and Reiner and Co. discussed completely re-writing the part. It was only when a young Tim Robbins tried out for the role, and played it funny instead of straight, did they realise what had been missing from the other auditions they'd seen. In the original draft Robbins and his partner, played by Lisa Jane Persky, where written to be constantly bickering. The part was re-written to have them singing showtunes for much of their screen time, something that worked much better (and funnier) when in contrast to Gib and Alison's behaviour. Other minor roles went to Boyd Gaines and Joshua Cadman, along with a cameo for Steve Pink, who would go on to write Grosse Point Blank with Cusack some years later.

The hunt was now on for the two female leads, Alison Bradbury and the 'sure thing' herself. Reiner and the casting team saw a number of girls for both parts, but none quite had the qualities they were looking for. Daphne Zuniga, a young actress who'd had a couple of minor roles at that point, auditioned very well as Alison, and had a ready chemistry when screen tested with Cusack. By her own admission, Alison was very similar to Zuniga - both very serious about their work, very strict and methodical. In the documentary, The Road to the Sure Thing, Rob Reiner states that one of the reasons he cast Daphne Zuniga was because she was the kind of smart girl next door he could have seen himself dating back in college. The role of the nameless 'sure thing' was another difficult one to cast, and along with the role of Alison, one of the last ones to fall into place. Again, they saw many young girls, both actresses and models, before Nicolette Sheridan walked into the room. At the time, she had no actual acting credit to her name, though she would appear in the TV show Paper Dolls prior to the release of The Sure Thing. However, despite the lack of experience, she auditioned very well and both Reiner and Birnbaum knew they'd found the one, informing Sheridan that she'd got the part as she was on the way to her next audition.

With casting complete, and the shooting script ready, principal photography began on March 5th 1984 (two days before This is Spinal Tap made its theatrical debut). The shoot was set to run for 48 days, with the majority of filming taking place in Los Angeles and Stockton, California. Reiner was very keen to let the actors ad lib and come up with their own ideas and takes for each scene. Cusack flourished in this and had much input throughout the shoot. He would later state that for every ten ideas he threw out there, Reiner would take on at least three or four. This gave the young actor more confidence, and while Zuniga was more comfortable sticking to the script, she soon warmed to the improvisation - in some ways mirroring the way her character comes out of her shell. Sheridan's first scene to be shot was the one featured in the opening titles, with her character on the beach. The costume department went through at least twenty different bikinis before settling on a plain and simple white one - the idea being that the outfit should not be the centre of attention, rather the Sure Thing's body should be. A large house just behind that opening beach shot would be utilized for the picture's dream sequences.

It was John Cusack who came up with the beer shotgunning idea too, which Reiner used in a number of scenes. The script called for a different kind of trick, but when Cusack showed the director what he could do, it was written in. The first actual scene to be shot was the one in which Gib goes to meet Alison to study, but their first rooftop scene, which takes place moments later in the film, was shot some time later. This wouldn't be the only time when two seemingly follow-on scenes where shot many weeks apart. The pool sequence for example - the first part when Cusack's tirade ends with him diving into the water was shot near the start of filming, but the following scene, in which he stands drenched and waiting for Alison to appear, was shot a month later. This meant the continuity people had to match the character's wet clothes between the two scenes. The pool sequence itself was shot three times - each one ending with Cusack falling into the water a different way. Daphne Zuniga didn't get off Scott-free either. In the scene where she flashes another car, the actress removed her bra with such force that it also pulled off the tape that was meant to be covering her breasts.

A story from Rob Reiner's father, Carl, helped create one of the most memorable sequences in the film. When Alison gets picked up after hitchhiking, she narrowly avoids being assaulted thanks to a seemingly crazed Gib. Reiner senior recounted a story to his son, about seeing a girl being beat up by a guy in the street. Knowing he couldn't win a straight fight, he ran over to the fighting couple and began to act even crazier than the guy hitting the girl, forcing him to eventually flee. A variation of this idea was written into the script and played not only as a great scene in itself, but helped to show Alison's resistance to Gib softening. The sequence also reinforced Reiner and Birnbaum's idea that only things that could realistically happen would make it into the picture. Another such example was the bar scene - this time based around a Christmas eve Bloom spent stuck in a strip joint. The part also led to a rights issue; originally Gib and the barflys were meant to sing White Christmas but they couldn't get permission to use the song, The Christmas Song standing in for it instead.

By and large, the shoot continued to go smoothly, but ran into a minor issue with the party scene that takes place toward the end of the picture. The budget (rumoured to be between $4.5-6M) was fairly stretched as it was, and there was little in the way of money to clothe a bunch of partygoers (or dress the scene). To get around the issue, costume designer Durinda Wood came up with the novel idea of having a competition - $100 to the best dressed partygoer. It meant that, major players aside, the cast of extras clothed themselves. Further money was saved on at least one set too. Instead of creating the huge beer bottle collection that adorns the wall in Lance's bedroom, the crew simply hired one wholesale that they'd found in a local college dorm room while scouting locations. As filming drew to close, Viveca Lindfors arrived on set to shoot her scenes. While the actress only appeared in three quite short sequences, she made a memorable impression, particularly in the picture’s final moments. Filming wrapped on May 3rd, with the final piece shot being the last scene of the movie.

Everyone went their separate ways as Reiner began to assemble his first cut. In the meantime, This is Spinal Tap had come and gone, and while it didn't set the box office alight, it would go on to become one of the biggest cult classics of all time. Even if The Sure Thing didn't make much of a splash, Reiner was already talking up a future project tentatively titled When Harry Met Sally...The soundtrack was pulled together and would feature such artists as Huey Lewis and the News, The Eagles, Wang Chung and Rod Stewart, who provided the opening track, Infatuation. The initial edit opened with Alison looking for a ride back west but this was removed so as to establish the characters before anything else. The finale was also refined, and instead of cutting back and for between the two couples, Reiner chose to focus more on Alison and her boyfriend, removing the scene in which the Sure Thing asks GIb if he loves her ('her' being the Sure Thing). With the release set for March 1st 1985, the studio tested the near completed picture in St.Louis and Paramus, New Jersey. Audiences loved it, and warmed to characters; Cusack in particular came in for much praise and the film was rated highly for keeping its footing firmly in reality.

When critics got to see the finished picture, their praise was much the same. Roger Ebert called it a 'small miracle' for the way it handled teenage romance, especially in an era where sex comedies such as Porky's had become the norm. Similarly, Janet Maslin, writing in the New York Times stated that The Sure Thing proved that 'Traditional romantic comedy can be adapted to suit the teen-age trade'. The picture currently holds an impressive 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike today, March of 1985 was a relatively quiet one. Back in those days, potential summer blockbusters stuck strictly to the May-July release window. At the time Beverly Hills Cop, which had been released back in December 1984, was still in the top spot, a place it had occupied for twelve straight weeks.

The Sure Thing didn't need a big start - a solid opening and a decent follow up frame would enable it to recoup its modest production budget. It was set to open on the same weekend as Missing in Action II: The Beginning (a follow up that came just four months after the release of the original picture). It wouldn't offer much in the way of direct competition, but The Breakfast Club, which was still going strong, certainly would. The following week would see no major releases opening but the week after bought Porky's Revenge and The Last Dragon, with Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, waiting in the wings. . On its debut weekend at 1,115 locations, The Sure Thing slotted into fifth place, making a not-bad $3.1M. Given the film's lack of star power or hype, chances are the studio was quite pleased with that figure. It was also more than two thirds of what This is Spinal Tap made in its entire theatrical run. The Breakfast Club was one step ahead, making around $500K more while Beverly Hills Cop continued defy belief, making $5.1M on its thirteenth weekend.

A week later The Sure Thing moved up into fourth place and saw a drop of only 7.4% on the previous weekend's taking. By the end of its tenth day on release it had recouped its budget and got ready for the onslaught of Porky's Revenge. Witness, the Harrison Ford drama, had also ended Beverly Hills Cop’s run at the top. Weekend three saw no change in position for The Sure Thing as it crossed the $10M mark and dipped another 7% on the last frame. Sadly, a week later with four major releases entering the fray, it was all change. Friday the 13th - Part V took the top spot, Porky's Revenge dropped in behind while The Last Dragon, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend and Mask (which expanded out of limited release) ensured it was an all-new top five. The Sure Thing dropped down to eighth place and lost a hundred or so locations in the process. More new releases (and a re-issued Return of the Jedi) saw the picture tumble outside the top ten but it continued to play well right up until its exit from theatres, and ended up with a solid $18.1M - more than tripling its production budget. The bikini-clad Nicolette Sheridan adorning the poster may well have been a factor in the film become a success on the home video market too.

The Sure Thing showed John Cusack was adept at being both a comedic lead and somewhat serious actor. Despite being successful at roughly the same time, he was rarely lumped in with the brat pack. His next picture, the criminally neglected (and brilliant) Better Off Dead was another romantic comedy, though a lot less grounded in reality. While not a success, it too proved popular on video. He moved on to more serious fare with The Journey of Natty Gann, before re-teaming with Rob Reiner for a minor role in Stand By Me. Two further teen-comedies followed - One Crazy Summer (with Demi Moore) and Hot Pursuit, and then a reunion with Tim Robbins on the music industry satire, Tapeheads. But Cusack was eager to be taken seriously and made the switch to more adult orientated fare with Eight Men Out, TV Movie Fat Man and Little Boy and as Roy Dillon in the well received picture The Grifters, opposite Annette Benning and Angelica Houston. He also created a memorable character in Lloyd Dobler, star of Cameron Crowe's romantic drama, Say Anything....

In the early 1990s he worked twice with Woody Allen. First on Shadows and Fog and again on Bullets Over Broadway. Even though he gave a spirited performance in the latter, he was the only one of the four leads who was not nominated for an Academy Award. He went on appear opposite Anthony Hopkins in The Road to Wellville and Al Pacino in City Hall. In the later third of the decade he stepped up his output, appearing in summer blockbuster Con Air, lending his voice to the animated Anastasia and playing a hitman attending his high school reunion in arguably his best film, Grosse Point Blank. He rounded out the year by appearing in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

 As the millenium approached he continued to work at quite a pace, winning strong notices for Being John Malkovich. That was followed up by a trilogy of romantic comedies - High Fidelity (featuring a cameo by Tim Robbins) American Sweethearts and Serendipity. He switched again later in the new decade, adding horror (Identity, 1408) and thriller (The Ice Harvest, Runaway Jury) to his repertoire. He'd have one more major hit, the disaster flick 2012, and one more throwback to his teen years in Hot Tub Time Machine before his career took something of an odd path. While he as continued to work consistently, it has been on much smaller movies in most cases, or taking a cameo part in an ensemble picture. He has continued to diversify, going so far as to appear as a villain in a number of features - though sadly few saw the inside of a movie theatre. He remains a popular actor and may well have found a whole new audience thanks to the success of Dragon Blade, an action adventure released in 2015 that saw him team up with Jackie Chan.

Post-Sure Thing, Daphne Zuniga appeared in a number of smaller movies and one-off TV roles, before landing the female lead in the Mel Brooks' Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs. She then appeared opposite Tom Berenger in Last Rites and Eric Stoltz in The Fly II. However, her most enduring role came in 1992 when she landed the part of Jo Reynolds in the Aaron Spelling show Melrose Place - a spin-off of the hugely successful Beverly Hills 90210. She would stay with the show for four seasons, and also cameoed as the same character in the pilot episode of a further spin-off entitled Models Inc. When she left Melrose Place in 1996, she struggled to find the same level of success, and appeared in a string of low budget films and TV movies. She returned to episodic drama in American Dreams (2004), Beautiful People (2005) and One Tree Hill (2008). She also had chance to return to two of her earlier roles, as Jo Reynolds for the short-lived return of Melrose Place and lending her voice to Princess Vespa for Spaceballs: The Animated TV Series.

Tim Robbins went on to have a hugely successful career as an actor, writer and director. He appeared in such notable pictures as Jacob's Ladder, The Shawshank Redemption and The Player. He also directed Bob Roberts, Cradle Will Rock (which featured John Cusack) and the critically acclaimed Dead Man Walking, which starred Sean Penn and Robbin's then-partner, Susan Sarandon. Anthony Edwards appeared opposite Tom Cruise in the smash hit Top Gun in 1986, but it was the hugely successful drama, ER, for which he remains best known for to this day. As an actress of some standing, Viveca Lindfors continued to appear in film and TV shows throughout the remainder of the 1980s and well into the 90s, including a part in the original Stargate movie. She passed away in 1995. As for The Sure Thing herself, Nicolette Sheridan, she followed a similar path to Daphne Zuniga, winning a recurring role in the hit drama Knots Landing. Throughout the 1990s she appeared in a number of TV Movies, before landing the part of Edie Britt in the hugely popular Desperate Housewives. Sadly, after her exit from the show, she spent more time in court suing the network for wrongful dismissal than in acting roles.

Roger Birnbaum went on to have very successful career as a movie producer, before forming the production company Spyglass Entertainment. Over the last 25 years he's worked on the Rush Hour series, Bruce Almighty (and its sequel), The Legend of Zorro, Wanted and many, many more. Following his work on The Sure Thing, Rob Reiner went on to direct two of the most popular romantic comedy dramas ever made in the guise of The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally....He won acclaim for his work on the Stephen King adaptations Stand by Me and Misery, and saw success with A Few Good Men, The American President and The Bucket List. He has also continued to write, produce and act, appearing recently in the Martin Scorsese picture The Wolf of Wall Street.

Even at the time of its release, The Sure Thing was a light romantic comedy, far and away from the nudity filled sex romps out around the same time. Compared to more modern teen movies such as the American Pie Series, it seems tamer still, yet that is part of its timeless charm. Birnbaum, along with Reiner, Bloom and Roberts set out to see if they could take a 1930s love story and modernise it for a contemporary teenage audience - something that many felt they achieved. The film never talks down to the viewer and the chemistry of the two leads is there for all to see. The Sure Thing may not make any top romantic comedy lists but is more than worthy of a place amongst the best of them.

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