13 Close-Up Facts About Grosse Pointe Blank

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YouTube

For a generation of moviegoers, John Cusack was a sensitive heartthrob in '80s teen films like Better Off Dead, Say Anything..., and One Crazy Summer. In 1997, after several years in lower-profile roles, Cusack reemerged for the next generation as Martin Q. Blank, a depressed hitman who attends his high school reunion. Grosse Pointe Blank opened in 1997 and was a minor hit, earning $28 million (about twice that at 2017 ticket prices) before going on to become a cult favorite. It reintroduced John Cusack to the world, and it gave Dan Aykroyd his best role in several years, too. Let's relive the '80s for one night and dive deep into Grosse Pointe Blank.

1. THE SCREENWRITER WAS MOTIVATED BY PANIC OVER HIS OWN REUNION.

In 1991, Tom Jankiewicz got a letter about his 10-year reunion back at Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights, Michigan. He was in L.A. by now, trying to become a screenwriter, supporting himself by working at Big Lots and as a substitute teacher. But he wasn't ready to see all those old friends again. His brother later said, "When the letter came, he wasn't where he wanted to be yet ... It freaked him out, but it made him productive. He sat down and got serious about [what would become] Grosse Pointe Blank."

2. SOME CHARACTERS ARE NAMED AFTER THE WRITER’S FORMER CLASSMATES.

Jankiewicz didn't actually go to his reunion, but he did use the names of former classmates for some of the characters in his screenplay. Jeremy Piven's character, Paul Spericki, for example, was named after Jankiewicz's best friend, and the movie's reunion announcement was a near-verbatim copy of the real one. He chose Grosse Pointe—"the Beverly Hills of Michigan"—over his own hometown because it sounded better, and he named Marcella (Joan Cusack) after his manager at Big Lots.

3. YOU MAY HAVE HEARD THAT IT'S BASED ON A REAL GROSSE POINTE STUDENT WHO BECAME A HITMAN. IT ISN'T.

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Jankiewicz reportedly loved that urban legend, but there's no truth to it. Jankiewicz just didn't think a movie about a cashier at Big Lots attending his 10-year reunion would be very interesting, and he used his fondness for crime fiction to come up with the hitman idea.

4. KIEFER SUTHERLAND WANTED TO BE IN IT AT ONE POINT.

Though several production companies liked the concept, it took a while for Jankiewicz to sell his script. Kiefer Sutherland wanted to make it (this would have been around 1992 or 1993), but, in the words of one columnist, "the mix of comedy and violence proved to be a tough sell."

5. JOHN CUSACK AND HIS FRIENDS PERSONALIZED IT.

Cusack had a company, New Crime Productions, that he'd formed with old Chicago friends Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis, and with which another friend, Piven, was also involved. They found Jankiewicz's screenplay, optioned it, and set to work revising it to match Cusack's specific tastes and talents. Piven, Pink, and DeVincentis all have onscreen roles, as do Cusack's siblings Joan, Ann, and Bill. A journalist who went to high school with Cusack in Evanston, Illinois found allusions to their school in the finished movie, writing, "If I'm not mistaken, the heroine's last name, Newberry, belonged to a pair of cute, artistic Evanston sisters; and the bully is a thinly disguised (and inexplicably cruel) parody of another of my classmates, who I pray hasn't seen this movie."

6. THE DIRECTOR CLAIMS WRITING CREDIT, TOO.

George Armitage was a Roger Corman protégé who had written and/or directed a few blaxploitation films in the 1970s, including Hit Man and Darktown Strutters, plus the well-received 1990 crime film Miami Blues (starring Alec Baldwin). Grosse Pointe Blank was the first movie he directed that he didn't also write, but he said he could have had screenplay credit for this one, too. "I did as much as anyone did in terms of writing," he told an interviewer. "Because the Writers Guild is insane with the way they handle the credits, I decided that if I threw my name into the mix, the percentage would drop for everybody and they'd get screwed out of it."

7. SOMEWHERE THERE'S A TREASURE TROVE OF ALTERNATE TAKES AND DELETED SCENES.

Armitage said they "basically shot three movies simultaneously": one that stuck to the script, one that was "mildly understated," and one that went "completely over-the-top" in terms of improvisation and energy. It was usually the third version that got used, which means there are alternate versions of nearly every scene still out there somewhere. (So far, the film's DVD and Blu-ray releases haven't had any of them.)

8. THE KISS DEBI PLANTS ON MARTIN WAS IMPROVISED.

In one of those loose "third versions" of the scene where Martin walks into Debi's radio booth for the first time, Minnie Driver decided to let her character put all the cards on the table and just kiss him. Armitage said, "It was just wonderful, completely out of the blue. You should have seen the smile on Johnny's face afterwards."

9. CUSACK FOUGHT A WORLD-CHAMPION KICKBOXER, WHO ALSO HAPPENED TO BE HIS TEACHER.

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Benny "The Jet" Urquidez has nine black belts and was a competitive fighter in the 1960s and '70s before taking on some movie roles. In Grosse Pointe Blank, he plays Felix La PuBelle, the assassin who pursues Martin throughout the film, culminating in a fight to the death in the high school hallway. Urquidez got the job because he was already Cusack's kickboxing instructor; they met when Cusack had to learn "the sport of the future" for Say Anything... Urquidez continued to train Cusack for years afterward.

10. QUENTIN TARANTINO WAS A FAN, AND ALMOST HAD A CAMEO.

Quentin Tarantino, who'd just burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, was a fan of Armitage's work and somehow came to be personally acquainted with him. While filming the 7-Eleven shootout in Grosse Pointe Blank, Armitage added a nod to Tarantino with his help. "I called him and said, 'Could I use your lobby card of the Pulp Fiction cast?' Armitage recalled. "So we wired that with squibs and shot it up too." He said Tarantino wanted to make a cameo—"he wanted to be shot or blown up or something"—but it never materialized.

11. IT WAS FILMED ALMOST ENTIRELY ON LOCATION ... IN LOS ANGELES.

The crew spent only half a day in the real Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and most of that in a helicopter, getting aerial shots of the town. "I would have given anything if we could have made the movie there," Cusack said. "But it was all number crunching, so we spent it on the movie instead of the location." Doubling for Grosse Pointe High School was John Marshall High School, an L.A. institution that's been used in numerous films. Grosse Pointe's main drag was in nearby Monrovia, California.

12. CUSACK SAW IT AS A METAPHOR FOR THE REAGAN/BUSH YEARS.

"I grew up fascinated by people in the Reagan administration, their ethics, their mercenary values," he said in an interview. "People who plan wars and then go home to their wives and their kids ... How do they live? To me, Grosse Pointe Blank was a metaphor for the people in the Bush White House." Elsewhere, he described the movie as "a black comedy about the American Dream, that 'win at all costs' personality you see every day ... A tongue-in-cheek look at the American value system."

13. THE ORIGINAL SCREENWRITER DIED SUDDENLY AFTER A POST-SCREENING Q&A.

There's a sad postscript to Grosse Pointe Blank. The original writer, Tom Jankiewicz, continued to work in Hollywood as an uncredited (but not unpaid) script doctor, and as a journalist and copywriter. He was a shy, kind, tall man—six-foot-nine—who stayed out of the spotlight. In January 2013, on a whim, he accepted an invitation to a college professor's screening of Grosse Pointe Blank and treated the students to a Q&A afterward. During the discussion, Jankiewicz collapsed, and he died at the hospital later that night. It was a shock; he was only 49 and in good health. Family members speculated that his heart had been weakened by a case of bronchitis he'd had a few weeks earlier.

These Breaking Bad K-Swiss Sneakers Are Heisenberg-Approved

K-Swiss
K-Swiss

On the heels of last week's Netflix release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, fans of Breaking Bad have another treat on tap. Sneaker brand K-Swiss just announced a special edition sneaker modeled after the now-iconic RV camper where unlikely drug kingpin Walter White and his sidekick Jesse Pinkman cooked batches of the finest methamphetamine New Mexico had ever seen.

A K-Swiss Classic 2000 x 'Breaking Bad' Recreational Vehicle sneaker is pictured
K-Swiss

The Classic 2000 x Breaking Bad Recreational Vehicle sneakers sport the same distinctive striped pattern as the camper and feature the show’s logo on the tongue. Inside is a lining that resembles the upholstery of the camper’s interior. The shoebox even has a few bullet holes to mimic the ones on the camper’s door.

Unlike Walt's meth, the sneakers are available only in limited quantities. K-Swiss plans on launching the shoe beginning at 6 p.m. PST on Thursday, October 17, at a pop-up store at 7100 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, California. (The “store” is actually the screen-used RV from the series, and fans are welcome to stop by to take pictures with it.) The company will release 50 pairs at the pop-up, with another 250 through K-Swiss.com and through Greenhouse, a designer and collectible shoe app from Foot Locker.

The shoes retail for $80, but unless you’re one of the lucky few able to grab a pair through the routes above, you’ll probably have to consider a marked-up eBay sale. As Walter White well knows, quality comes at a heavy price.

10 Gruesome Facts About Dawn of the Dead

Anchor Bay Entertainment
Anchor Bay Entertainment

In the late 1960s, George A. Romero changed horror cinema forever with Night of the Living Dead, an instant classic that defined zombie storytelling on the big and small screens for decades to come. Over the next decade, Romero—who was reluctant to revisit the creepy world of shambling corpses he’d brought to life—tried other things. But then a chance encounter with a shopping mall and a little help from a fellow horror master changed his mind. The result was Dawn of the Dead, an over-the-top horror comic book for the big screen that remains, for many fans, the greatest zombie film ever made.

It’s been more than 40 years since Dawn of the Dead first arrived in theaters, and the film remains a wickedly fun piece of horror satire full of exploding heads, mischievous bikers, and one very dangerous helicopter. In celebration of four decades of terror at the mall, here are 10 facts about the making of Dawn of the Dead.

1. We can thank the mall (and Dario Argento) for Dawn of the Dead.

When Night of the Living Dead became a massive hit after its release in 1968, Romero began fielding various offers to potentially revisit the world of ghouls that he had created. Romero, who’d made a living making TV commercials in Pittsburgh before Night of the Living Dead was made, was "paranoid" about the idea of returning for a second film, and left it alone for years until an idea unexpectedly came to him.

As Romero explained on Anchor Bay’s Dawn of the Dead commentary track, the idea for the film initially came to him when he touring Pennsylvania's Monroeville Mall, which was owned by some friends of his. During the tour, he was shown some crawlspace within the mall where various supplies were stored, and started thinking about what might happen if people holed up in the mall to try and ride out a zombie apocalypse.

The second big ingredient that led to Dawn of the Dead was Dario Argento, the acclaimed Italian director best known for Suspiria and Deep Red. Argento offered to help Romero get financing for a Night of the Dead sequel, and even invited him to Rome to work on the script.

“They got us a little apartment, I sat in Rome and banged this out,” Romero said.

2. George A. Romero came up with the most famous line while drinking.

A photograph of George A. Romero
Vittorio Zunino Celotto, Getty Images

The most famous line in Dawn of the Dead—a line so famous it became the movie's tagline and was later reused in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake—belongs to the character of Peter: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” As catchy and unforgettable as it is, Romero doesn’t recall any grand moment of inspiration. He was just drunk one night, trying to get the script finished.

“I just made that up. Truly. On a drunken night when I was really crashing to finish the script and I thought that was kind of nice. It was from something Dario Argento told me,” Romero told Rolling Stone in 1978. “My family is Cuban and Dario said, ‘Well you have a Caribbean background and that’s why you’re into the zombie thing; zombies originated in Haiti.’ I said, well, all right, and I just figured that’s something a voodoo priest might say. Whee! I’m just having fun, man.”

3. Multiple versions of Dawn of the Dead exist.

Argento helped Romero find financing for Dawn of the Dead and served as a “script consultant” on the film. In exchange, Argento retained the right to recut the film for various foreign markets, while Romero retained final cut for North and South America. As a result, the Italian version of the film was shorter than Romero’s U.S. version, as Argento trimmed certain jokes he felt Italian audiences wouldn’t get. This increased the darkness of the film, which led to certain content cuts in other foreign markets. This is why several different cuts of the film wound up existing around the world, including an R-rated re-release that was re-cut for drive-in theaters in 1982.

4. Dawn of the Dead was released unrated in America.

Dawn of the Dead was released first in international markets, arriving in Italian theaters in the fall of 1978, months before it would land in the United States. In just a few weeks, the film was a commercial success overseas without ever playing to American audiences. So, when Romero and company ran into MPAA demands that they cut the film down or get an X rating, they doubled down and released the film unrated without any cuts to the gore.

5. The zombies didn’t get a lot of direction.

Though he’s renowned among horror fans as the man responsible for building zombies into one of the most effective movie monsters, Romero didn’t spend too much time guiding his undead ghouls. The director felt that if he tried to offer detailed direction in terms of zombie behavior, the zombies would all start acting one way instead of like a group of individuals. So, direction was kept to a minimum.

“You just have to say, ‘Be dead,’” he later recalled.

6. Yes, it was filmed in a working mall.

The Monroeville Mall was not a Romero invention. It was a real, working shopper’s paradise, owned by friends of his, which meant that it wasn’t just going to be shut down for weeks at a time so a zombie movie crew could come in and wreck it. Though Romero and his wife Chris later recalled having to stay out of the mall while the Christmas decorations were up (which is when scenes set elsewhere were shot), once the crew did get into the mall they could only shoot at night.

To make that easier, the crew replaced many of the lights in the mall with color-corrected lighting, so they could essentially shoot wherever they chose. At 7 a.m. each morning the mall’s Muzak would automatically start playing, which meant shooting was done for the day, and the cast and crew could shamble home for a little rest. (The Monroeville Mall, which is located about 10 miles from Pittsburgh, is still in operation today.)

7. Many of Dawn of the Dead's gore effects were improvised.

Though he would eventually become known as one of horror’s great gore wizards, at the time of Dawn of the Dead Tom Savini’s career as a special effects artist was still quite young. As he recalled later, he was doing a play in North Carolina when Romero called him and said: “We got another gig. Think of ways to kill people.”

Savini later recalled that he was given a great deal of freedom to play with different ideas for the many, many gore effects in Dawn of the Dead, so much so that many of the most memorable effects were made up on the day of shooting, including the scene in which a zombie takes a screwdriver through the ear and the exploding head during the SWAT raid on the housing project near the beginning of the film. Savini’s knack for improvisation also served him well in another capacity: The character of Blades the biker, which Savini plays, was not in the original script. He was simply added during shooting.

“George let us go play,” Savini recalled.

8. Dawn of the Dead is packed with cameos.

Like many of Romero’s films, Dawn of the Dead’s production was based in his native Pittsburgh, which meant that getting people to be in the movie was often as simple as contacting friends and family and inviting them to appear on camera. Romero makes a cameo in the film himself, alongside his future wife and producer Chris, in the film’s opening sequence at the TV station, where the couple is sitting side by side at a control panel (Romero, Savini noted on the commentary track, is also wearing his “lucky scarf”). Other cameos scattered throughout the film include Chris Romero’s brother Cliff Forrest as the man who leans over a sleeping Francine in the opening shot, and Tom Savini’s niece and nephew as the two zombie children who burst out of a closet at the landing strip and attack Peter.

9. The bikers were not actors.

As with some of the smaller speaking roles, getting extras to show up in Dawn of the Dead was often a matter of simply asking around Pittsburgh for the right people. As a result, the National Guardsmen present in the film, as well as some of the police officers, were real National Guardsmen and real cops.

For the legendary sequence in which a biker gang stages a raid on the mall, the production also managed to find real bikers in form of a group called The Pagans, who brought their own motorcycles for the shoot.

“I don’t remember who contacted them, but they just showed up,” Chris Romero later recalled.

10. Dawn of the Dead almost featured a darker ending.

During production on Dawn of the Dead, George Romero told Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo that the film had, in Flippo’s words “no beginning and two endings.” Romero explained that this was because he was working “moment to moment” on the film. He eventually figured the beginning of the film out, of course, and went with an ending in which Peter and Francine fight their way out of the mall and onto the roof, where they escape in the helicopter. So, what was the other ending?

On the film’s commentary track, George and Chris Romero and Tom Savini all discuss a much darker concept to close the film, in which Peter would have shot himself (which he contemplates doing in the final cut) while Francine would have leapt into the spinning blades of the helicopter, mirroring one of the most famous zombie deaths earlier in the film. That ending would have followed in the footsteps of Night of the Living Dead’s dark ending, but Romero ultimately decided on something lighter.

Still, the original plan didn’t go to waste: Savini had already made a cast of actress Gaylen Ross’s head to use for Francine’s death scene, so he repurposed it—with the help of some makeup and a wig—for the famous exploding head shot during the housing project raid.

Additional Sources:
Shock Value by Jason Zinoman (The Penguin Press, 2011)
Dawn of the Dead DVD Commentary (Anchor Bay, 2004)

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