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Sex, sweat & sizzle: The making of 'Body Heat' movie


The original version of this story appeared in The Palm Beach Post in 2000:

Twenty years ago, a bunch of nobodies came here to film a low-budget thriller. They created a modern classic.

Long before movie audiences were familiar with such performers as Kathleen Turner, William Hurt, Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke, before screenwriter established himself as a film director, an unassuming cast and crew arrived in Lake Worth to capture some exterior shots for a low-budget, stylized thriller.

The time was December 1980 - 20 years ago this month - and the movie was "Body Heat", the steamy, film noir tale of Florida femme fatale Matty Walker (Turner) and none-too-bright lawyer Ned Racine (Hurt), whom she seduces, corrupts and implicates in the murder of her husband. Little was expected of the movie, yet Film Comment magazine would later assess it as "perhaps the most stunning debut movie ever."

It would gross a tidy $30 million - a nice return on a $7 million budget - and help launch a handful of major film careers, steam up the glasses of moviegoers and, for movie buffs at least, forever put Lake Worth and Hypoluxo on the map.

Curiously though, for a film so closely associated with Sunshine State humidity and sweat, "Body Heat" was never intended to be shot here.

"I hate to tell this, but the movie was planned for New Jersey," says Miami-born Kasdan ("The Big Chill", "The Accidental Tourist", "Grand Canyon") by phone from his Los Angeles offices.

As is likely again next year, the film industry in 1980 was paralyzed by an actors strike, delaying schedules and requiring improvisation on locales. "The heat is such an important part of it and in December, when the shooting was pushed back, it was going to be snowing in New Jersey. So we immediately relocated to Florida."

Adding to the movie's difficulties, Palm Beach County was having a particularly chilly winter, Kasdan recalls. "You know that most of the movie takes place at night and it was especially cold, but we were trying to create the impression of heat. When Ted is dancing on the pier and Bill (Hurt) is in shorts and a T-shirt, it was freezing."

"It was damn cold," recalled Turner in an interview several years ago. "That first scene on the beach, where I'm wearing the white dress, the wind was so high and it was so cold, they drove trucks up on the beach and put plywood by the wheel bases to try and block it, so we could actually get the shot."

Even her perspiration was a special effect. "It was freezing and I remember the makeup man kept coming up to me with his spray bottle," says Turner. "And I looked at him and said, 'Don't even think about it.' "

Search was on for steamy spot

 When Kasdan hurriedly sent his location scouts in search of a new site for his fictional small town of Miranda Beach, he had never set foot in Lake Worth. "I sent them to Florida because I knew that area and I liked the feeling of it," the writer-director says. "I thought that would solve our problems and it did, in fact."

On the list of requirements was an affluent home for Matty and her husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna), which was found in nearby Hypoluxo. Also needed was a down-home coffee shop where Hurt and fellow lawyer Danson hang out. The latter was created in a vacant storefront on Dixie Highway, across from Lake Worth City Hall, which was designated the local courthouse.

'Liked the little town feeling'

 "I liked the little town feeling on the street, y'know? It was like the little town in my head. And I loved the waterway," says Kasdan, referring to a stretch of the Intracoastal south of Lake Worth. "We have a few shots of the waterway."

Production designers arrived to create the coffee shop and to adapt the Hypoluxo house for exteriors. "Most of the house was shot back on sound stages" in Los Angeles, including the memorable scene where Hurt hurls a chair through a picture window to couple with in-heat Matty, says Kasdan. "But we built the boat house, we fixed up the big drive-through veranda there."

Kasdan remembers the town being extremely cooperative and eager to please these Hollywood invaders. "It was my first movie and I couldn't have been more excited and my memory of it is all positive, in terms of the people there and their willingness to help us," he says. Yet the cast and crew had little contact with local residents because of the nocturnal shooting schedule.

"We were living this sort of shadow life around the town, because we would go to work around 4 o'clock in the afternoon and come home at 4 o'clock in the morning and sleep all day," Kasdan explains. "After a while, it really gets to you."

Warner Brothers executives prescribed a tight shooting schedule. "The movie was shot in 43 days, and that's Florida and Los Angeles," says Kasdan. "We never had enough time. When you're shooting at night like that, you have to light the world, y'know. That's very difficult. You can't just walk out into the street and say, 'OK, let's go.' You have to light down the block and the next block and that leaves very little time for the actual shooting. The thing that impressed me as a first time director was, 'My god, there's no time to do this.' Now I'm sort of used to it."

He does look back nostalgically on the freedom the studio allowed him, largely out of indifference. "No one really cared that much what I was doing," he says. Being thousands of miles from the studio certainly helped, along with the minuscule budget. "It's gotten harder and harder to make a regular movie that's going to be distributed nationally the way Body Heat was for that kind of money now," he notes. "Now movies that are made for that money are independent films that might play in 100 theaters, maximum."

'A golden time in American acting'

Kasdan doubts any of the major studios would touch a movie like Body Heat today, unless it had a couple of recognizable stars. But the early '80s were "a golden time in American acting," Kasdan says. "Bill Hurt and all those people who were coming up in his generation - (Kevin) Kline and John Heard and (Christopher) Walken, they were all just starting to happen."

Hurt had made Ken Russell's Altered States and was in the middle of shooting Eyewitness with Sigourney Weaver when Kasdan cast him in Body Heat. Turner, a soap opera actress, had never been in a feature film when she glided into the director's office to audition.

"I had never heard of her before she walked in to read," says Kasdan. His first impression? "You know, another beautiful girl. I'd been seeing a lot of beautiful girls. But she had that incredible voice and she understood exactly, I thought, that this was very stylized, that it was a throwback to another era, even though the movie was a contemporary movie. And she was able to walk that line that the entire movie has to walk."

Rourke was similarly unknown when Kasdan picked him to play a convicted arsonist. "That was when Mickey was starting and he was amazing," the director says. "That's one of my favorite performances of his, ever, what he does in Body Heat."

Danson was hardly a household name, either. "Except while we were shooting, he was offered the lead in Cheers," recalls Kasdan. "He asked my opinion and I said, 'Those are the best possible people. You should take it.' I had no idea, of course, what he was getting into.

At the time, Kasdan was already acclaimed for his screenplays of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he was growing increasingly frustrated by not having control over his words. So on his first directing job, he was slavishly faithful to what he had written.

Only one sequence was edited out. "I made a mistake that I'm still making 20 years later, writing too much," he says. The superfluous sequence "made the movie long and it was a stall in a very tightly wound story."

So do not look for a different director's cut of Body Heat on DVD and do not hold your breath for a director's commentary. "I've never done a commentary and I can't bring myself to listen to any of them," Kasdan says. "It's 'Oh, I remember that day. It rained when it wasn't supposed to, the tacos were bad.' It's meaningless to me."

Nor has he sat and watched Body Heat for a long time. "For a while you can't look at these movies at all. After five years, you usually pull it out, watch a little bit of it and say, 'Hmm, yeah, that's not bad.' Then sometimes you think, 'That's terrible.' It's very emotional, because they're so intense, they're very intense experiences. It all comes flooding back."

Surprisingly funny at times

He has never wavered, though, on his opinion of the consciously wordy, highly stylized script. "I was afraid I might never get to do another movie," he laughs. "I felt that since it was my one shot, I better put it all in there. The writing barely passes as contemporary, but it's fun. People are always surprised how funny the movie is. When it played in theaters, there were an enormous number of laughs in it and all of them intentional."

Also intentional was Body Heat's steamy sensuality. "Oh, yeah, I wanted to make the sexiest possible movie. Because I felt, even then, a time coming out of the '70s, things were relatively explicit, but they weren't sexy to me. I wanted to make a movie that was sexy."

Although studio executives and fans alike have encouraged Kasdan to continue Matty's story in a Body Heat sequel, he says he has never seriously considered it. He is fairly sure, however, that she is still on a beach in the South Seas, where we last saw her.

"She must be close to 50 now," he says, and probably no longer has to manipulate stupid men. "It was all toward an end, which is independence, financial security. I think she invested well. Maybe she bought Apple early and got out of it in time."

 Local lingo in 'Body Heat'

They call the city Miranda Beach in Body Heat. It's in Okeelanta County. But there's little doubt those are just stand-ins for Lake Worth and Palm Beach County, where filming took place. Here are some other local references in the film:

- In Stella's Coffee Shop, Stella tells William Hurt and Ted Danson that she knows a certain woman isn't dating Hurt. "I happen to know that Glenda is seriously involved with a narc in Palm Beach," she says.

- Hurt and Kathleen Turner meet at a law office in West Palm Beach after problems arise with her husband's will. It's the office of "Schiller, Hastings."

- There's a scene at The Breakers! But in a delicious joke for locals, this isn't the posh island hotel. It's a run-down, abandoned, day-rate dive where Hurt dumps the body of Richard Crenna. 



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