A Perfect Murder: About The Production

Buy this video from Reel.com

Music from Amazon.com:
Buy The Soundtrack.

"This film is not a who done it," says "A Perfect Murder" cast member David Suchet, "it's a how done it."

Indeed, the film does not rely upon keeping the audience in the dark about the often-sinister goings-on within...rather, it lets them in on the lethal mischief step by step, as the story weaves a not-so-straight path through the twisted corridors of love, passion, deception, sexual jealousy and murder.

These were the themes that interested Christopher Mankiewicz, an independent producer who was developing several projects at Warner Bros. Says Mankiewicz, "I had always loved 'Dial M For Murder,' but felt that it contained untapped potential. I thought that with its themes of greed, jealousy and intrigue, the bones of the story were remarkably contemporary and we could bring the rest of the elements into the '90s and have a very exciting new movie."

At about the same time, producer Arnold Kopelson had viewed a laser disc of 'Dial M for Murder' and decided, with his producing partner and wife, Anne Kopelson, that he wanted to remake the film. When he learned that Christopher Mankiewicz was already involved in the project, he teamed with Mankiewicz to continue bringing a new version of the movie to fruition.

Explains Kopelson, "There's an old adage about there only being about two dozen stories in the world and they're told and re-told in every culture. A really good story is full of potential, and this is a first-rate story &endash; full of glamour, dramatic tension, interesting characters, unexpected plot twists and suspenseful thrills. As soon as I saw it, I knew that we could make a provocative contemporary version of this story that people would want to see."

Mankiewicz continues, "We brought on screenwriter Patrick Kelly to develop a story that would embrace the classic thriller elements of Knott's play and Hitchcock's adaptation, and at the same time contemporize the characters and their environment. We attempted to open up the story to move it away from being what we thought was a contained stage production. And in particular, we changed the role of the lover to make him a more active part of the story. Patrick Smith Kelly gave us a razor's-edge script which updated and re-tailored the material."

Producers Arnold and Anne Kopelson also immediately asked Peter Macgregor-Scott, with whom they had previously collaborated on Warner Bros.' massive hit, "The Fugitive," to join them as a producer on the film. And all of the filmmakers agreed that Andrew Davis, who had directed the Oscar-nominated "The Fugitive," was a first-rate choice to direct this sophisticated thriller.

Kopelson emphasizes, "Andy Davis is an intelligent and disciplined director, and this story is just right for him, with its mix of plot and character. We were very excited to be re-teaming on this project after our experience on 'The Fugitive.'"

"It's a puzzle piece," says Davis, "a triangle about three people who seemingly love and hate each other at the same time. I was really attracted to the story and the script. The possibility of exploring this incredible tension and puzzling twists and turns really lured me into directing this film."

"Hitchcock, of course, filmed Knott's play with great style," says Macgregor-Scott. "What we've tried to do is to resurrect it in a completely new and fresh form. And Andy Davis was the perfect director for 'A Perfect Murder' because, although he's become known as an action specialist, if you look at 'The Fugitive' you realize that making it work as well as it did took a delicate touch. That movie isn't primarily about train crashes. It's a psychological thriller as much as it is an action thriller. 'A Perfect Murder' required the touch that Andy brought to 'The Fugitive,' because the fascinating tale is of how a triangular love story goes tremendously awry."

Screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly felt that at the heart of "Dial M for Murder" are themes which are both timeless and timely. "The basic thrust is about possession," he says, "and that it's hard to kill someone perfectly. And if you plan to murder someone, and you involve a third person, it's a quantum leap in what can happen."

Among Kelly's changes from the source material--including a major alteration in the set-up which vastly alters the way the story plays out--was relocating the action from 1950s London to the alternately gleaming and tawdry New York City of today. "The kind of vital, moneyed, art-soaked, fast-paced world depicted in our story only exists in New York or London," notes Kelly. "I don't know London, but I lived in New York for 16 years. It's the most interesting place I know, and I've set almost everything that I've written in New York."

New York is certainly familiar territory to Arnold and Anne Kopelson, whose recent hit, Warner Bros.' "The Devil's Advocate," had been filmed there in its entirety. States Anne Kopelson, "Peter Macgregor-Scott's technical expertise and insight to the filmmaking process enabled us to capture the diversity of New York City to enhance the multidimensional lives of each of our characters."


Bring in the Cast...Bring on the Crew

As the filmmakers assembled a first-rate crew--including innovative Polish-born director of photography Darius Wolszki, Oscar-winning production designer Philip Rosenberg, acclaimed costume designer Ellen Mirojnick and film editor Dennis Virkler (an Academy Award nominee for his work on "The Fugitive")--an outstanding cast also began to evolve.

"Michael Douglas as Steven Taylor is the best thing that could have happened to my script," says Pat Kelly. "This character is the center of gravity in the story, an improvisational predator who plans the perfect murder. And when it goes wrong, as it must, the heart of the piece is about how Steven manipulates himself and others like chess pieces, in an attempt to win the game. As Steven, Michael is charming, scary and poised, all at the same time."

Adds Macgregor-Scott, "Michael is also a consummate filmmaker in his own right. In fact, he's made more pictures as a producer than I'm likely to do in my entire career. He understands the innumerable challenges of motion picture production, and works as a complete professional in every sense."

Douglas was, in this case, drawn to his character and to the acting challenges of his complex role. "Steven is a real mixture: a successful, charming man and a conniving, potentially lethal mate," explains Douglas. "He makes a murderous decision when he learns his wife has been unfaithful, a choice that makes him easy to hate, but I wanted the audience to care what happens to him anyway &endash; to understand how he loved his wife, how many pressures he was carrying inside himself, and what a blow to his ego it was for him to come face to face with the man who had cuckolded him.

"This character is the first villain I've played since 'Wall Street,' and it was fun to revisit the type; I usually think the bad guy is the most interesting character in the story. Of course, in this story we're all villains, so maybe that's the best part of it!"

A perfect choice for the role of Emily Bradford Taylor, Steven's beautiful and resilient wife, was Gwyneth Paltrow, one of the most respected young actresses today. Paltrow was drawn to the script's roller-coaster twists and turns and to the validity of its characters.

"The nice thing about Emily is that she's an intelligent woman who's also emotionally motivated," she comments. "Emily's emotions catalyze almost everything she does. She's very aware of what's going on, but so much has been hidden from her, both in her sheltered upbringing and her equally sheltered marriage to Steven, that it takes a long time for her to uncover what's really happening.

"But when she does," Paltrow continues, "she responds with strength and character."

Paltrow also appreciated that although the script paid respectful homage to Knott's original play, "A Perfect Murder" also strove for originality. "Some broad fundamental strokes are the same," she comments, "but only in big structural ways. I wouldn't dare to presume to fill Grace Kelly's shoes. I just think that we're making our own movie. The Hitchcock movie is, of course, its own lovely thing. We've taken a good idea and adapted it, making it modern and, hopefully, fun and scary."

The third member of the triangle, the enigmatic artist David Shaw, is portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, who, after several years of strong supporting performances, has been edging his way into the upper echelon of American leading men.

"I could see immediately that Viggo was going to bring even more to the role of David Shaw than what I had on the page," admits screenwriter Kelly. "He not only brought his own ideas to the role, but his actual art as well."

It was decided early on by Andy Davis and the producers that Mortensen--a talented artist in his own right portraying Shaw, also in that vocation--would actually contribute his own resonant, sometimes disturbing works to the film, rather than have the filmmakers rely upon canvases by those without any other connection to "A Perfect Murder." To prepare for his role, Mortensen actually inhabited--as often as possible--the set selected and then designed by production designer Philip Rosenberg as David Shaw's loft, on the upper floor of a crumbling warehouse in Brooklyn's Greenpoint district.

Mortensen was drawn to "A Perfect Murder" not only because he would have the opportunity of playing an artist, but also because he felt that the script dealt with some fascinating if harsh universalities. "All three protagonists in the story are forced by circumstances to lie," he notes, "as most people are in small ways, everywhere, always, even if only to themselves. To me, that's an interesting consistency about our species.

"I also appreciated the fact," continues Mortensen, "that the story hopefully stimulates complicated emotions and thoughts. There aren't a lot of special effects or explosions. It's a character-driven drama with characterizations that are layered and well-balanced."

For the role, Mortensen faced a curious prospect. Would David Shaw's artwork reflect the actor's sensibilities, or in some way be "in character?" "Actually, I suppose they were a little of both," Mortensen responds, "but, not having a lot of time to think about it, I just had to dive in and go for it. For better or worse, I suppose the artwork reflects both my subconscious and my ideas of who David Shaw is as well."

Also working hard on his preparation was the distinguished British actor David Suchet, cast as New York Detective Mohamed Karaman. Suchet isn't exactly a neophyte when it comes to playing sleuths...after all, he's famed the world over for his portrayal of Agatha Christie's immortal Belgian Hercule Poirot on the British television series.

But for "A Perfect Murder," Suchet would be working quite another beat as an Arabic American officer whose turf is the Big Apple. Thus, Suchet had to brush up on his American accent (previously perfected for such films as the Sundance Festival-honored "Sunday" and several theatrical productions in England), learn more-than-passable Arabic and study the terrain.

"I hung out with an NYPD detective named Scott Dillon, who helped me enormously," notes Suchet. "I had a look around the station and the interrogation room, and spoke with Scott and other detectives about how they proceed with their work, step by step."

Suchet was also delighted--as were his fellow cast members--that screenwriter Pat Kelly had created a wholly sympathetic character for whom ethnicity is merely back-ground rather than the impetus for his being. "During the time I spent in New York, I just happened in with a lot of Arab-American friends," says Kelly. "There haven't been a lot of characters with that ethnicity portrayed in average terms, and I thought it would be interesting. I also thought that with Emily's background in languages, having her and Karaman create some kind of bond shared on their ability to converse in Arabic would be something different as well."

"My approach to the role of Karaman," adds Suchet, "is that he's a first-generation American without a trace of an accent. When the audience hears him speaking Arabic on the telephone to his wife, it should come as quite a surprise. He's merely a New Yorker who, like so many others living in the city, is still connected to his ethnic roots."

Other fine talents assembled for "A Perfect Murder" include the distinguished stage, screen and television star Constance Towers as Emily's mother Sandra. "When you have the opportunity of working with Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen and Andrew Davis in one movie, it's an offer you can't refuse," she says.

Although Tower's working schedule was brief, her role was crucial in clarifying Emily Bradford Taylor's background and upbringing. "I think the script allows you to understand the generations of quality, breeding and wealth that Emily comes from," adds Towers, "and Sandra is a major part in portraying that to an audience. I loved the fact that Pat Kelly had the courage to write a loving mother/daughter relationship. We often see the angst between mothers and daughters on screen and television, but my mother was a great source of strength in my life, and that's what Sandra is to her daughter. Emily goes back to her mother for healing and a moment of respite before she goes back to the anxiety and threat of the outside world."


Shooting the Apple

Production began in New York in a magnificent 41st-floor set representing Steven Taylor's suite of offices, the first of some 70-plus locations throughout the length and breadth of the city.

Andy Davis and Pat Kelly decided from inception that, as long as their story was to be set in New York, they would take full advantage of the city's extraordinary locations. "It might as well be a living postcard of New York," notes Kelly. And so, for the next few months, Davis and company careened from the southernmost reaches of Manhattan's financial district northward to Harlem, crossing the East River to Brooklyn, the Hudson River to New Jersey and heading out to the green expanses of Long Island.

Any number of New York landmarks provided the backdrop for the film's intrigue, some known the world over, others familiar primarily to denizens of the city. These include the United Nations, the Ellis Island Ferry, Penn Station, the Fulton Fish Market, Washington Square Park, the East Side meat-packing district, restaurants and bars of varying sizes (including the famed Gotham Bar & Grill, as well as the diminutive Raoul's in Greenwich Village and Riverrun in Soho).

The company traveled to Glen Cove, Long Island, for sequences at the palatial home of Emily's mother, Sandra Bradford, utilizing the noble interior of Salutations, one of the many homes built by turn-of-the-century mogul J.P. Morgan.

Much filming also took place on the Upper East Side, where Gwyneth Paltrow was happily besieged on a daily basis by students from the nearby Spence School, her alma mater, for whom she is a great local hero as well as a considerable role model. "It was great to go back to my old neighborhood," Paltrow says, "right across the street from my school."

The film's most extraordinary "practical" location--and also its most logistically difficult and lavish sequence--was the Temple of Dendur wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the setting for a stunning charity party attended by the characters portrayed by Douglas, Paltrow and Mortensen, as well as hundreds of New York's most elegant residents (some of whom were portrayed by local friends of Arnold and Anne Kopelson and Michael Douglas).

"Two nights of all-night filming at the Met, 500 extras dressed to the nines, tremendous lighting and other production challenges," recounts Peter Macgregor-Scott. "But that's the fun, and that's why we do it. If it were easy, then everybody would be doing it, and I'd be driving a cab!"

The dimensions of the Temple of Dendur wing induced director of photography Darius Wolszki to come up with some ingenious solutions for lighting the space without cluttering up the floor with huge lights and other equipment. Wolszki arranged for several lighting balloons, resembling gigantic Japanese lanterns, to ascend to the ceiling of the glass-enclosed wing and appropriately illuminate the entire scene.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the middle of the night, can be both magical and superlatively spooky. It's not often that even the veterans of multiple movie productions pass billions of dollars' worth of art on their way to a catered midnight dinner. And veteran production designer Philip Rosenberg was reminded by his surroundings that in the early 1970s he'd worked on the film version of the classic children's book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, about two kids who hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And most unusually for a feature film, writer Patrick Kelly was on set nearly every day for the duration of the shoot. "I promised them I'd cook if they let me hang out," jokes Kelly (who spent six years of his life as a stand-up comedian). "Actually, this is a dialogue-heavy script, so it allowed me to work things out when necessary with Andy and the cast, and poke my nose where it doesn't belong!"


Design for Living

The plentiful number of real locations, as well as two crucially important living environments for the three major characters, were challenges met head-on by Rosenberg. The showpiece of his work was the extraordinary interior of Steven and Emily Taylor's Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. Although the exterior of the apartment building and terrace were both shot on the Upper East Side, the large number of crucial scenes set inside the apartment--and the need for total accessibility for the cameras to roam through the penthouse--required that the interior be entirely designed and built from scratch.

With New York soundstages at a premium, the filmmakers decided to utilize the tremendous Jersey City Armory, which provided enough space for the 11,000 square foot set.

"I basically deal with visual concepts formulated by the director," notes Rosenberg, "and Andy felt very strongly that the Taylors should have a global view of life, what with Steven being involved with international finance, and Emily working at the United Nations as a translator. So we came up with the idea of having each room in the penthouse reflect different cultures.

"The problem facing my department," continues Rosenberg, "was how to execute it in a way that the architecture held all of these elements together. We developed a scale and scheme that was common to all the rooms, and just changed the various elements of decor to indicate the various regions that each represents. Thus, there are strong Japanese accents to the master bedroom and bath, Morocco highlights the kitchen and dining room, the library feels very British, and so on."

Appropriately for the world of pleasure and privilege in which Steven and Emily live, the walls of the Taylor penthouse are hung with many examples of fine art, some reproductions, some original. Among the artists represented are Larry Rivers, Robert Natkin, Bjorn Rye and Philip Rosenberg himself. The Japanese woodblock prints are originals from the collection of Rosenberg and his wife, both avid collectors.

The Taylor penthouse is also arrayed with rich furnishings, and it was the responsibility of art director Patricia Woodbridge and set decorator Debra Schutt to comb the furniture dealers of Manhattan for the proper pieces.

"Luckily, Asian furniture is very popular in New York at the moment," notes Schutt. "We found a dealer in Chelsea who had a warehouse full of wonderful furniture, much of it antiques, and we rented many pieces for the movie. However, much of the furniture and other accoutrements in the Taylor penthouse was built especially for the movie."

Quite a contrast was David Shaw's loft in Greenpoint, as hiply downscale as the Taylors' penthouse is up. "I first designed the loft before Viggo Mortensen was cast," says Philip Rosenberg, "but after Viggo came in I worked very closely with him in re-designing the space to suit his own sensibilities."

"Working on the loft was great," adds Debra Schutt, "because it was so different from the penthouse that it was like walking in different worlds. Viggo really made the space his own and was also very willing to take direction, which was great for both sides. He would help me in dressing the loft, but on the other hand, he would also ask for advice from Phil or myself on how we thought it should look, or where his paintings should go."

Another major task for Rosenberg and his team was to re-create a large United Nations conference room, which was also constructed in the Jersey City Armory. "It wasn't really designed to exactly match any existing conference room in the U.N.," notes Rosenberg, "except for the Picasso tapestry, which we re-created with the United Nations' permission."


Dressed to Kill

While the art department was dressing the sets, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick was hard at work dressing the cast with head-to-toe original designs that were created and constructed especially for the film.

"For 'A Perfect Murder,'" says Mirojnick, "the impetus was that the two principal characters lead seemingly charmed lives. The base was refined beauty and perfection of color and shape, but nothing too fussy. In the movie, everybody lies, so I wanted to make sure that the audience is seduced by the characters' beauty...because the lie is behind that beauty.

"Steven Taylor's clothing is all fine, fine fabric," continues Mirojnick. "It's hand-tailored, from top to bottom and, inclusive of his leather shoes, everything except for a tie or two was designed especially for Michael Douglas, who plays the character. Steven is made to look strong, powerful and elegant.

"As Emily, Gwyneth Paltrow is also very elegant, but neither of the East Side matron variety or downtown chic. Rather, Gwyneth is made to look very refined and simple. It's about shape and form. Subsequently, as with Michael, almost everything was made for Gwyneth."

"The Balenciaga gown she wears to the Metropolitan Museum is a very unexpected dress in this day and age, and it looks very elegant and beautiful on Gwyneth. I don't think we've seen a dress like that in a movie in a really long time. One of my main goals when I design a contemporary movie is that the clothing, both male and female, look timeless and classic."

As for Viggo Mortensen's David Shaw, Mirojnick says, "David is not just bohemian, but truly an eccentric, and also a man of dubious morals. Viggo is an exceptionally attractive man with a non-stereotypical sexuality, who lives his roles. He took every single one of those pieces of clothing that we had for David Shaw and he lived in them, painted in them and probably slept in them!"


Happy New Year

"A Perfect Murder" wrapped production on schedule, but not without regrets from a cast that had worked together very intensely...and happily.

Says Michael Douglas, "Every production has its own chemistry between the cast and crew. This one was really delightful; I enjoyed working with Gwyneth and Viggo enormously, and Andy Davis visualized and sustained a refined tension on the screen while keeping things very relaxed on the set."

"It's been such a thrill working with Michael and Viggo," declares Gwyneth Paltrow. "They each work in very different ways. Michael is so smooth, together and in control. And Viggo just lives his character. I feel really fortunate, because these two gentlemen are so talented and classy that it really elevates the genre to a whole other level."

David Suchet and Constance Towers were also enthusiastic about their experiences. "I have to say that this has been one of the happiest jobs of my career," states Suchet. "Michael, Gwyneth and the entire cast and crew have been charming and wonderful. I also had the feeling that Andy Davis was enjoying the chance to move from action to drama."

Towers, who has worked for such great directors as John Ford and Samuel Fuller, has nothing but praise for Andrew Davis. "I'm tremendously impressed with him," she says. "He is totally prepared, which an actor appreciates greatly. Another rare quality is that he's truly a decent, caring person, which makes for a very happy environment in which to work. It doesn't always happen that way."

Concludes Viggo Mortensen, who finally had to abandon the Greenpoint loft in which he spent so many hours living and preparing for his role, "I'll miss the building and the neighborhood.

"I went straight into 'A Perfect Murder' from another movie, in which I played a very different character. It was scary, but I'm grateful to Andy and the producers for trusting me enough to try this. Every once in a while you hit something special with a group of people, and that makes the day, or week, or year worthwhile."

Back to "A Perfect Murder"

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.