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13 Close-Up Facts About Grosse Pointe Blank

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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.

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


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First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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