Welcome to Summer camp

Nicole Kidman and writer Paul Rudnick talk about remaking The Stepford Wives in an era when "traditional values" are scarier than ever

BY Alonso Duralde

May 11 2004 12:00 AM ET

If Walking
Tall
and The Punisher and all the other
vengeance movies this year have been Hollywood’s
response to 9/11, then the new remake of The
Stepford Wives
just might be the gay
mafia’s response to the current debate about
“protecting traditional marriage.” Out
mogul Scott Rudin teamed his In & Out
writer Paul Rudnick with Nicole Kidman, the Oscar-winning
star of Rudin’s The Hours, in this
reinterpretation of Ira Levin’s spooky novel
(originally adapted to film in 1975) about a
Connecticut suburb whose veneer of “perfect”
wives hides a disturbing secret.
Rudnick, who previously blended laughs with
chills in the Addams Family films, saw this as
a remake ripe for someone with his wicked gifts.
“I looked at a Pauline Kael review of the original
film,” he says, “and she said she felt that
the comedy was so inherent in this material that she
wondered why the earlier film hadn’t brought
that out to a greater degree. So I felt
emboldened.” And on the heels of such serious epics
as The Hours, Dogville, and Cold
Mountain,
this sci-fi satire gave Kidman an
all-too-rare chance to show the comic chops that won her
such acclaim in Gus Van Sant’s To Die
For.
Kidman and Rudnick’s mutual admiration
was evident in a phone interview with The Advocate.

Was this remake an idea you came up with, or was it
pitched to you?

Rudnick: No, the producer, Scott Rudin, whom
I’d worked with on many projects before, came
to me because the rights to the underlying
material—not just the original film but the original
novel, which was written by Ira Levin—became
available. So I think there were several parties that
were interested in the rights. Scott made a bid and
then called me up. I have a very common knee-jerk reaction
when I hear the title Stepford Wives. There are
so many people who may not even have seen the original
film or read the book, but they’re so familiar
with the title.

Oh, yeah, it’s definitely entered the lexicon.

Rudnick: It has, and I was always curious as to what
image that actually entails, especially for people who
didn’t know the original story. And it
fascinated me in quite the same way—I knew
I’d seen the movie a long time ago, but I
didn’t remember the plot exactly. But I
immediately said, “Yes—oh, my God, that
sounds so intriguing!” So that was how things began.

Well, one thing I’m curious about and would love
to hear your thoughts on: People throw the word
camp around sort of recklessly, and
I’m of the school that thinks it’s only
campy if it’s funny in a way that
it’s not intended to be.

Rudnick: Right.

And my feeling with the original Stepford Wives
is, they knew exactly what they were doing. It may
be kind of ridiculous and overstated in a certain
way, but it’s all intentional and it’s not
necessarily campy the way Valley of the Dolls is.

Rudnick: Yeah, I’m glad you said that, because
I find that people could so misunderstand and misuse
the word camp out of just sheer ignorance and
sometimes out of malice. That sometimes camp can mean
just anything that might make a heterosexual man
uncomfortable. No, it’s such a flexible term.
Susan Sontag’s piece on camp, actually, I
thought was brilliant, because it explored a lot of the
facets of the term. Especially since camp has kind of
entered the water supply—there’s
heterosexual camp and old-school camp and high- and
low-camp—it’s way too easy to either dismiss
or marginalize a certain kind of comedy or a certain
kind of performance as merely camp. And I think
that’s unfortunate, ’cause I think that
both the novel and the first Stepford Wives film are
also extremely witty. They’re very sly and
they’re both serious suspense pieces, but they
are onto themselves and they realize that
there’s something innately comic about the notion of
men turning their wives into robots. Maybe because
almost anyone can understand the impulse.

A lot of writers talk about being pariahs on the set once
the movie gets started. Did you get to be around?
Did you get to shape the material after casting
happened, to make it more appropriate for
whomever’s doing it?

Rudnick: Absolutely, especially on this film.
I’ve worked with both Scott and Frank Oz, the
film’s director, before on In & Out.
They’re both wonderfully generous and patient
men. So they actually welcomed and even demanded my
presence, because—especially, I
think—when you’re working with comedy
and with a cast of this caliber, when things are going well,
you want to give people even more to do, and if things
are misfiring, it’s great to have a writer on
hand going, “OK, let’s fix
this—let’s fix it right now.” So I was
very glad to be on the set, and I think I never
imagined that every syllable or even every paragraph
of mine is anything approaching gold, so I’m very
happy to tailor material to performers, especially when
they’re this kind of crowd.

Kidman: I do have to say, we had Paul on the set
every day, and that’s a blessing. It never
happens, and that shows his commitment to something.
And also to have your talent, it was nice just to say,
“Paul! Can you come up with a line!”
[Laughs] And “What do you think? Will
you say it for me?” I’d get Paul to
sometimes say the stuff for me, right? I’d be like,
“Show me how you’d play this!” But
it’s very, very helpful to have a writer
express how they heard it. And I had no problem being
given a line-read.

Rudnick: Oh, well, it was beyond an honor to work
with Nicole and the rest of that cast, because
that’s quite an overwhelming group. And you
just keep pinching yourself.

So, Paul, any thoughts of directing at some point?

Rudnick: Never!

Kidman: Oh, you should! You really should!

Rudnick: Oh, no, that’s an impossible task,
and I’m so impressed with the 2-1/2 people who
can do it on the planet! [Laughs] I’m just in awe.

Kidman: No, you’d be very, very good. And I
say that because he did. He’s very good at
sensing what works and what isn’t going to work.

Rudnick: As always, that is extremely kind of you. I
mean, Nicole, for someone of her caliber and her
stature in the world to be that generous and that
constantly patient and that open was almost unheard of.
And that’s sucking up. [Kidman laughs] But
that’s impressive, because I think there are
people far less famous and far less gifted who
don’t ever listen to anyone. That’s an
additional pleasure. And I think, actually, that was
true of almost all of our cast, that they were people
who were...it’s an amazing groups of names, but
people were working together. Especially with comedy, you
need that level of collaboration.

Kidman: But collaboration is what makes you...I mean,
if you’re going to be good, you’re going
to be good because there’s this group of you
working together. That’s
why—particularly as an actor—it’s never
about your performance. It’s about everybody
else contributing to a performance. And it’s so
important that at any of those awards or any of those
things when you win an award, you say, “This
isn’t about me, this is about a group of people that
came together and helped each other, and this is what
came out of it.”

Rudnick: It’s also, I think, one of the
pleasures that movies have—oddly, both
Stepford and Dogville—is when you
have casts like that and they create a town.
It’s the idea that you could get in your car and go
somewhere that has Glenn Close and Nicole Kidman and
Chris Walken living in it. It’s amazing, if you
think, Oh, yeah, that’s the planet I want to
live on. And the same with Dogville, where you have
Lauren Bacall and Patty Clarkson and Nicole, and you
think, How wonderful that someone can create these
communities. And I think that’s something that
you only get in the movies.

Kidman: They’re two different towns.

Rudnick: So which was scarier, Dogville or Connecticut?

Kidman: [Laughs] I think Von Trier was far
scarier. Which I’m sorry to say! At the same
time, with Lars, he was scary but he was also
rewarding. I suppose it’s the way you live your life.
There’s different ways to live it, and I tend to say,
“I want to turn myself into it. I still want to
make really crazy, spontaneous choices and see where
they come out.” And I suppose part of this
thing is that when you reach a certain stage of success,
it’s very hard to keep doing that, because
people don’t want you to—there’s
a lot more at stake. But at the same time, I think
it’s when you’ve got to do it.

What do you think it says about feminism that 30 years
later, you can still tell this story and it still
rings the same chimes with people?

Rudnick: Well, it was interesting, because in the
first film, the most threatening thing that any female
character did —the heroine, played by Katharine
Ross—was pursue photography as a hobby.

That’s right! What cheek!

Rudnick: It was considered so frightening that they
had to turn her into a robot! And I think women have
made certain strides since then, so now the women in
our film are CEOs—Nicole plays the president of
a network—so there’s the more current
phenomenon of genuinely powerful women whom men find
extremely threatening. And also, there’s
something else that’s been written about quite
a bit lately: That sense of women who’ve experienced
power, who really have shattered glass ceilings and
become the heads of corporations, who then step away
and say, “No, I want to raise a family. I want
to make a different choice now that choice is
possible.” And some of those women have been
criticized; some of those women have been told off as
women with a choice available only to the very
wealthy. But it’s a lot of interesting contemporary
questions about women’s lives. In a way, it’s
about what gay people would be going through about
“OK—who do you want to emulate? Do women
want to become precisely what powerful men have been?
Is that so desirable? Is that a necessary step for
feminism?” I guess I always think that in order
to have true equality, you have to have an equal
number of gay or female monsters.

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