Behind the Scenes: Eye for an Eye, the Movie

A Novelist and A Movie — Her Own
by Erika Holzer
The Daily Oklahoman (1996)

“Quiet on the set! We're rolling!”

That did it. I hadn't been “on the set” of Eye For An Eye five minutes and already I was hooked by the drama rolling in front of me like a rapidly unfurling carpet.

A red carpet, as it turned out. This was my movie Paramount Pictures was making. Shooting in Los Angeles had begun only two days earlier.

Once cast — and especially crew — realized that the woman in jeans, running shoes, and hand-painted denim shirt had written the novel on which the film was based, I was shown every courtesy, given insider tips, and — most exciting — made privy to technical explanations of all things cinematic.

I chatted with stand-ins for the “stars” (also known as “the talent” — on this particular day, there were two: Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland), and learned that “stand-ins,” as opposed to “stunt doubles,” need bear no physical resemblance to the persons they stand in for when needed — say, while a scene is being set up. I mean, why waste a movie star's time when he/she can be in a well-appointed trailer? “Stunt doubles,” on the other hand, are look-alikes dressed in identical outfits from tip to toe — same hairstyles, same clothes, same shoes — and they get thrown around a lot or do dangerous things.

I hung out with extras who ranged in age from their early twenties to their late seventies — highly opinionated people, most of them, when it came to Eye for an Eye's controversial vigilante theme.

Stunned by the magnitude of the entire undertaking — trucks, trailers, camera and sound equipment, literally hundreds of purposeful-looking people everywhere you looked — I turned giddy as a child with the feeling that I was responsible — indirectly at least — for this great burst of activity. (One security guard actually thanked me for his job!)

Given the neighborhood (Ingraham Street between Wilshire and Union), and a few statistics one of the crew members laid on me — more drug-related murders per square block than any other location in town! — I decided right up front that the hefty security guards ringing the site were definitely earning their pay.

For a moment, I was struck by the irony of the situation. Here we were, the whole lot of us, involved in a make-believe world of simulated violence while the real-life violence endemic to this particular neighborhood was being put on hold.

This sobering realization was underscored when I learned that the owners of the run-down house adjoining the "location" house had agreed to let Paramount replace their shaky wooden fence with a barbed-wire perimeter only if Paramount promised to leave the barbed wire behind after the shoot was over! ... Why not? I thought, even as the reverse of that old cliché about life imitating art came to mind. After all, Eye for an Eye — book and movie — is about the pain, fear and frustration of violent crime victims.

Most of my roughly nine hours on the set were spent watching director John Schlesinger shoot "tight" interior scenes — so tight, in fact, that I was forced to view the proceedings from just outside the location house. Those wonderful sound people rushed to my rescue unasked. Setting me up in Kiefer Sutherland's chair. Strapping on a pair of earphones. As things warmed up, I found myself tuning into such traditional film lingo as: "Speed?" (Is the sound up to speed?); "marker" (that familiar-looking device with its black-and-white-striped pull-apart top that somebody clacks together before each "take"; "Action!" (no explanation needed).

And since I couldn't see him, I was forced to eavesdrop, as it were, on Sutherland's psychopath, a man whose modus operandi was using his job of delivery boy for a local grocery as a window of opportunity to stalk, rape, and murder.

There were a lot of takes. In between one or two, I could hear a couple of cameramen kibitzing — a guy and a gal. (Were they flirting?) I heard Kiefer Sutherland's voice, then the tentative, increasingly nervous replies of the stunningly beautiful young Hispanic woman whose groceries he'd just brought into the house. His whispery voice was by turns relaxed, matter of fact, suggestive ... sinister. I heard the woman scream. Heard the body of a stunt double crash violently against a table.

These things I heard over and over until, finally, I heard, "That's a print!"

Was I bored by the repetition — all the takes? Not for a minute. As unnerving as this scene was, I loved listening to all the subtly refined nuances being honed to perfection by director and cast. It seemed a lot like attending a dress rehearsal of one of those old-fashioned radio dramas — the kind I'd grown up with.

During a break in the shooting, I gave inscribed copies of my novel not only to Sutherland and the young husband and wife screenwriting team, but to the legendary John Schlesinger, director of such classics as Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man.

People have since asked me what Schlesinger was like. He commanded respect and he exuded authority — the quiet kind of authority that never for a moment made cast or crew nervous. And throughout that long day, he gave repeated evidence of a sense of humor and an unruffled temperament (such as when a supposedly trained German Shepard — whose “job” was to react in some significant way to the pure menace of Sutherland's vicious character — took off after a stray cat!) Schlesinger just rolled his eyes in mock exasperation and made a mild crack about the dog's “so-called training.”

I also appreciated his forthrightness. He was upfront with me about not having read my novel because, in many respects, the movie was veering off in totally different directions and he didn't want to be influenced even subconsciously.

Did I like the version of Eye for an Eye that ended up onscreen even though Paramount had altered the plot (but not the overall theme) of my novel? Loved it. Frankly, when I saw it for the first time in a small screening room on the Paramount lot, the tears rolled down my cheeks. That's how dramatic, well-acted, edited, and directed the movie was; that's how competent and clever the script. Here was a major motion picture that had paid serious attention to the serious issue I had dramatized in my novel. And perhaps most important, Paramount could have — but did not — cheapen that serious issue by infusing their movie with a lot of allegedly crowd-pleasing mindless action sequences and meaningless car chases.

My biggest reward was not the day my Hollywood agent handed me a big fat check. Not the day Paramount Pictures' Sherry Lansing had me “warm up the press” before “the talent” arrived for the premiere by literally walking down a long red carpet flanked by photographers tossing questions at me; taking pictures.

No, my biggest reward stems from the fact that I am and shall always be an unabashed movie buff. It was on the second day of shooting when the producer of Eye for an Eye greeted me on the set with these words: “Welcome to your movie, Erika.” That was a truly surreal moment for me.

And that's a print.

Behind the Scenes II: Miscellaneous Scuttlebutt

Director John Schlesinger:

"I've never had a loved one close to me murdered, and I don't know how I would feel. I can only imagine how angry and upset and how totally devastated I would be.

I think that's how one would be [people like Sally Field's character in the movie]: so emotionally desperate that he or she would want the killer of a loved one dead."

"The studio kept saying: 'More violence, please. But I argued against spelling things out, and once the preview cards came back very positive but all marked 'too violent, too violent,' they [Paramount Pictures] left it to me."

Producer Michael I. Levy:

"It remains a primary concern of mine that the current system of justice doesn't appear to really fulfill the rights of the innocent. Whose family or friends haven't been personally touched by one kind of horror story or another?"

"I am so happy with the audience reaction to Eye for an Eye. Paramount is extremely happy with the box office. Movie hits like Mel Gibson's Braveheart and Eye for an Eye helped Viacom Inc. turn in first-quarter earnings that bettered Wall Street's expectations!" [Eye for an Eye opened to a strong $7.9 million gross.]

Co-screenwriter Rick Jaffa:

"We were overwhelmed by those meetings [after he and wife/co-screenwriter, Amanda Silver, conducted research into support groups for victims of violent crime] — the focus on recovery from personal grief; the frustration over justice and punishment. Most of them felt they couldn't really move on until justice had been served."

Actress Sally Field:

"I don't think Karen really knows why she's doing what she's doing, but it somehow empowers her to move forward. I think she's scared all the time, and fear changes her in different ways. When she actually meets the killer, she's terrified not only for her own life but also by the rage she feels toward this person.

Violence in our society is now changing people you never thought would be changed. I mean, look at Karen — a nice housewife who seems to be incapable of any kind of violence."

"He [Director John Schlesinger] is so strong. He's a lion for you. He knows actors incredibly well. He lets me lay all the emotions out, and then he'll say, 'Go to the anger more,' or 'Less of the defensive.' I can trust that he'll know which color to blend with what."

Actor Kiefer Sutherland:

"I think now, more than ever, people are feeling victimized by a small number of criminals in our society, and our inability to do something about them often seems shocking. The film articulates the shock and anger of that situation."

"Hearing a woman scream like that [Sally Field in the opening sequence or prologue of Eye for an Eye ] ... that's the first time in 26 films that I've ever had to do something that really bothered me after."

Actor Ed Harris:

"It's very tricky. My feelings [on punishment and retribution] are you can't have a society where killing is considered wrong and then kill people as part of the laws of that society. I don't understand how that works, regardless of what the crime is. But then again, on a personal level, if somebody did something to someone close to me, I wouldn't see any reason for that person to keep on living. It's a dilemma."

Actor Joe Mantegna:

"Here's a situation where my character confronts the man whom everyone knows is the person who did it, and [I] can't really do anything about it. I'm careful about it, but I'm obviously doing one of those small walks on the wild side."

Behind the Scenes III: Various Trivia

Once John Schlesinger expressed interest in directing Eye for an Eye [another interested director was Sidney Lumet], Paramount executives went searching for the female lead, most of them previous Oscar winners.

Some "might-have-beens" considered for the starring role — who either read the script, and/or wanted to play Karen but had time conflicts, were: Meryl Streep, Geena Davis, Annette Bening, Demi Moore, Signourny Weaver, Emma Thompson.

Before the role of the heroine's husband went to Ed Harris, some “desirable” actors were not approached simply because they were too expensive. Others were viewed as too old. Still others were bypassed because "the studio wants an American."

Eye for an Eye was shot on location in Los Feliz, Pasadena, as well as in downtown Los Angeles, Hancock Park, and in the Miracle Mile/mid-Wilshire sections of the city.

Principal photography began on April 24, 1995 and “wrapped” on July11, 1995 in what Entertainment Weekly called "a crushing 11-week schedule with a ‘bloody only-Sundays-off' final month."

On January 16, l996, Paramount held a charity benefit premiere for Eye for an Eye with 500 guests in attendance. An elaborate dinner party followed the showing of the movie.

Fifty-thousand dollars was raised for the National Neurofibromatosis Foundation.

Paramount execs throw a curve ball at Director John Schlesinger

Entertainment Weekly (1/26/96): "Eye for an Eye, a torrid revenge thriller, hit a major stumbling block just five weeks before shooting was to begin when Paramount executives told director Schlesinger and producer Mike Levy that they'd have to scrap plans to film in New York

The decree scotched Schlesinger's conception for Eye's heart-stopping opening sequence, ultimately transposed to the Los Angeles freeway [instead of Fifth Avenue in New York City].

Said Amanda Silver, co-screenwriter of the movie: “We'd set this up from the beginning as a New York story. There's traffic in L.A., but there's something claustrophobic about midtown Manhattan at rush hour that's unmatched.”

Then Police Commissioner of New York , William Bratton, would agree. In an 8/7/95 letter to novelist Erika Holzer, Bratton wrote: "It's a shame that [Paramount] could not have filmed your story in New York. As you know, 'L.A. ain't New York.'”

Out went Midnight Cowboy-style city grit. In came an emphasis on L.A.'s deceptively placid surface.

Schlesinger, being the thorough professional he is, shifted gears and set about turning his new location into an asset. Said he philosophically, "Los Angeles is a strangely unnerving place. Everything seems so ideal. The weather ... the ripeness of everything. So it can be much more alarming to have all this unpleasantness lurking in a nice green garden instead of a cement alley."

How Eye for an Eye Almost Lost Its Dramatic Title

On May 24, l995, Paramount went head-to-head with DeLaurentiis Entertainment in an arbitration proceeding before the Title Committee of MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America).

While on the set during the second day of shooting, novelist Erika Holzer was not amused to encounter an informal "new-title-just-in-case" contest among cast and crew. This was no joke. Paramount was facing the possibility that it would lose in the upcoming arbitration.

Turns out there's a first-come, first-served rule at the MPAA. On behalf of some French company that — fourteen years earlier — had brought out a kung fu-type movie called An Eye for an Eye, the DeLaurentiis folks asserted that Paramount's use of Holzer's book title might cause confusion among video customers who went looking for kung fu star Chuck Norris but got Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland instead! Some confusion.

Paramount's top legal talent geared up for the fight, optimistic (but by no means certain) of winning an exception to the rule by addressing four points in their legal brief.

1: Paramount selected its title "in order to inform the public that its film is based on the successful l993 novel Eye for an Eye, written by Erika Holzer ... and not to trade on the DeLaurentiis film of 14 years ago." Holzer's novel, after all, had received "broad press coverage in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek magazines, achieving such notoriety that it was reviewed in periodicals that normally review only non-fiction work ... and the author was even invited to participate in a television debate [CNN's Crossfire ], co-hosted by Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley." Pointing out that over 100,000 copies of the novel were currently in print and that the unabridged audio version was doing a brisk business, Paramount argued that there would be absolutely "no likelihood of confusion" between a kung fu film and one based on "a serious book."

2: Eye for an Eye was not "a unique or original title,” there being a myriad of motion pictures using the exact or similar titles [citing a 1966 Embassy Pictures feature about bounty hunters as well as four more obscure films and going all the way back to a collection of silent films produced between 1917 and 1942 and currently in home video distribution under the title Ben Turpin — An Eye for an Eye.

3: Numerous television productions, episodes from television series, books, short stories, and articles had, over the years, used the title [citing, among others, a 1905 book by notorious criminal defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow].

4: Delving into the history of the phrase "eye for an eye," Paramount argued that the term had been "in common use since pre-Biblical times, originating in ancient Babylonian law ... and appearing frequently in the early book of the Bible."

In conclusion, the Paramount lawyers claimed that "It would be a misuse of the MPAA title registration system if the copyright owner of a 14-year-old picture (and a non-classic at that) were able to block for all time the use of a well-known Bible quotation and common figure of speech as the title of a motion picture." (emphasis added)

Needless to say, Paramount prevailed.

Or, to put it more graphically, Sally Field pinned Chuck Norris to the mat!