Drag Queens, Pregnancy Woes, Fist Fights, And How Steven Spielberg Saved 'To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar'
Vida Boheme. Chi Chi Rodriguez. Noxeema Jackson. They were witty. They were wild. They were wonderful. And 23 years ago, these daring drag queens took their charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to a teeny-tiny American town, bringing lessons in life, self-love, and fabulousness. To celebrate their legacy and Pride Month, Shout! Factory has unveiled a collector’s edition blu-ray of To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newman!. We dove into the disc’s prime bonus feature. Alongside deleted scenes, trailers, and TV spots, this blu-ray boasts the new behind-the-scenes documentary Easy Rider in Dresses: A Look Back at the Making of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, which features never-before-seen interviews with screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane, director Beeban Kidron, and one of the film’s three leading men, John Leguizamo. They spill the tea on the making of this beloved queer comedy, from its cheeky origins, to the unladylike fistfight that broke out on set, to how Steven Spielberg stopped the movie from being snatched away from its pregnant director.
Here’s everything we learned from To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar’s special features:
Right-wing propaganda was an inspiration.
In To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, three New York City drag queens set out on a cross-country road trip, but get sidelined in a small town that’s never seen anything like them before. There, Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes), and Chi Chi Rodriguez (Leguizamo) make friends and inspire the local women to embrace their inner strength and passion for fashion! But its message of love and tolerance came from a very intolerant source.
Gay writer Douglas Carter Beane explained he snatched the basic concept from a right-wing film about “the gay agenda,” in which three drag queens drive into a town while an ominous narrator warns, “Do you want these drag queens invading your town?” Beane recounts, “I thought about many of the towns that I’ve been into in America, and I thought, ‘They could use a little invasion!’” (Can I get an amen?)
A mother’s confusion over RuPaul proved crucial too.
Fourteen years before RuPaul’s Drag Race, the drag superstar was doing her thing on MTV in her music video for “Supermodel.” While at his parents’ house, Beane “had MTV on because that was something you did at the time,” when his mother tsked over Ru, “She’s a beautiful girl, but her voice isn’t very good!” Charmed by this, Beane decided the women of his fictional small town would likewise see these queens are “New York career girls.” As a nod to this inspiration, RuPaul would appear in the film as the provocative drag queen Rachel Tensions.
This script’s creation and acquisition is a Cinderella story.
As a young playwright, Beane had no experience screenwriting, but he felt the road trip premise was better suited to screen than stage. So, during a two-week break from his day job as a “manny,” Beane wrote his first-ever spec script, realizing it probably wouldn’t get made but might get him the kind of attention that brings other work. To verse himself on the form of screenplays, Beane grabbed a screenwriting book from the local library. The one he found was from 1935, and comically out-of-date regarding style. He explains in the doc that his was therefore written more “like literature” than a modern screenplay. But it worked.
A first-time screenwriter drafted a spec script about drag queens, using an antiquated guide book. Then, he gave his script the outrageous and unwieldy title “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” And it worked. Within days, Disney and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment were in a bidding war over Beane’s script. Think on that a sec. In the end, Amblin won, and Spielberg became the film’s greatest advocate. But more on that in a bit.
Wesley Snipes begged to be in this movie.
In 1995, Wesley Snipes was an action star and macho leading man who’d fronted films like White Man Can’t Jump, New Jack City and Demolition Man. Now, Noxeema Jackson doesn’t suffer fools and does love basketball. Still, this was a very different role than anything Snipes had done before. Though Snipes did not participate in the behind-the-scenes doc, director Beeban Kidron says his desire for the part had to do with showing he’s not just an action star. She compared his busting out of his niche to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, commending, “He just gave it his all.”
Even though the filmmakers wanted Snipes, there was a scheduling conflict. He was slated to be elsewhere when they’d be shooting on location in a real Nebraska town. So, the eager A-lister begged them to push the shoot to accommodate his schedule. According to Beane, Spielberg accepted not only because of Snipes’ charms and box office power but also because of what the producer felt having a star like Snipes in a role like this would mean to LGBTQ kids who saw it.
Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo got into a fistfight on set, and it was broken up by the female and very pregnant director.
Let that all sink in. Imagine Swazye in a beehive swinging at Leguizamo in bold red lips. Imagine a big-bellied Kidron throwing herself in between the two swinging queens.
As Swayze passed in 2009, he is not interviewed. And Kidron doesn’t comment on the incident in the doc. Still, it does unravel the differences that led to this blowout. However, the aftermath/resolution is a bit unclear.
With a background in comedy and theater, Leguizamo came to set an unknown with a lot to prove. He and Beane agreed Leguizamo improvised a lot on set, trying to flesh out Chi Chi and get whatever screentime he could. Beane laughs recalling how Leguizamo even tried to add lines in scenes that were shot MOS, without sound. But Swayze didn’t appreciate this. He was an actor who treated the script as sacred. Beane believes the Dirty Dancing icon tried to channel his frustrations with Leguizamo’s showboating into his performance, recounting Swayze yelling in character, “Shut up, b*tches!”
Asked about the fight, Leguizamo admits with a grin, “It got mad uncomfortable because I was on a mission and I was not going to be stopped by anybody. Not by The Man. Not by Swayze. Not by anybody. Nobody. And sometimes he was tired or not up for the game, and he would get cranky or ornery, and one time he wants to fight. And I was like, ‘If that’s how you want to settle it. Let’s fight.’”
According to Leguizamo, Snipes yelled, “I’ll hold your purse. Knock him out,” though it’s unclear which of his costars he’s addressing with this comment. Leguizamo also claims, “They stopped us before we got to fighting.” But Beane remembers it differently. He says, “Beeban got in the middle of them, and she was pregnant! They’re taking swings, and there’s a pregnant woman in the middle of them keeping them apart!”
Leguizamo says after that, the late Swayze loosened up and improvised some jokes of his own. Leguizamo also claims, “every adlib is in the movie.” Kidron did not speak of the fight, but she does refute that claim, defending Beane. She says 95% or 98% of the dialogue in the final film was in Beane’s script.
Robin Williams was a costly cameo.
When Williams said he wanted to be involved, Beane was happy to expand the under-five role of John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt to accommodate him. However, Williams proved such a dedicated clown on set that the restaurant scene that should have taken one day to shoot stretched into two, which is expensive between locations, lighting, and extras. Kidron explained a lot of his jokes weren’t for the camera either. Williams was often at her side, jokingly “speaking” for the voice of the unborn child in her belly!
Spielberg’s notes pushed compassion and big dreams.
Beane admits that in the spec script, there were some jokes at the small towners’ expense. But Spielberg pushes him to think of them beyond stereotypical yokels, and urged him to consider his setting “a forgotten town in the middle of America.” Spielberg also suggested a new ending. Originally, To Wong Foo ended with the queens driving out of the town past a billboard that reads, “Keep America Beautiful.” Spielberg pushed Beane to write the realization of Chi Chi’s dream. The trio makes it to Hollywood, where Chi Chi used the lessons learned from Vida and Noxeema to win the drag pageant, where Julie Newmar crowns her. (Who in real life was delighted to be asked and included.)
Spielberg was a great ally and mentor.
Kidron was a young director when she booked To Wong Foo, and she expresses in the doc how great a collaborator and mentor Spielberg was to her. At that point, he’d already made a slew of hits like Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park and more. He was regularly proclaimed as one of the greatest filmmakers ever to live. And yet, when he gave her notes, he was remarkably empowering and compassionate. Kidron explains he gave her two sets of notes: One was influenced by how he felt audiences would react, based on his experience. The other “is a matter of taste” and encouraged her to do whatever she liked about those. Essentially, here’s what I think, but this is your film. Kidron says, “This was going to be hilariously funny, absolutely transgressive. But the point of the movie was to change people’s mind at a profound personal level. And that I saw as a political act.” Spielberg got it. Everyone got it. “That was what we were all engaged in for it.”
Spielberg saved Kidron’s movie.
Kidron nearly lost the directing job on To Wong Foo because she got pregnant. She explains, “When I rang Steven to tell him the news, I rang not to tell him ‘I’m pregnant, this is great. But ‘I’m pregnant, they won’t give me the insurance to make the film.’ And so this film I’d worked on for some time, I was actually going to be kicked off because I couldn’t get any insurance. And he said to me, ‘That’s not right. I have a lot of kids. I have made a lot of movies. Let me sort it out.”
They sorted it out by Spielberg offering to have Kidron’s back. “The way we sorted it out was that if anything happened to me during my pregnancy while we made the movie, Steven would come on and be my second,” she explains, going on to joke that she wondered if someone might “throw her down a flight of stairs” so Spielberg would direct a drag queen movie. But she concludes, “There are people in power who can make a difference. And Steven Spielberg made it possible for me to make that move. Not only being a director, being a woman director, but actually allowing me to be a director who was a mother.”
Kidron won the baby pool! Sort of.
Kidron made it through all of principal photography before her baby was born. And the cast and crew were not only supportive but had a great sense of humor about it. They placed bets on when her baby might drop. And on a flight back from their Nebraska location to New York, Leguizamo presented her with the pot of winnings to give her son, who was on the way in a hurry! Kidron admits that while traveling her labor pains began. After wrapping, she basically went straight from the flight home to the hospital to have her son. And Spielberg cheered her on this too, “He said to me, ‘THAT is a director!’”
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar Collector’s Edition Blu-ray is now available. Also, look for Pride Month Collector’s editions of Boom!, Jeffrey,Can’t Stop the Music and The Babadook.
To celebrate #PrideMonth, we’ve teamed up with @ShoutFactory for a limited edition of THE BABADOOK.— IFC Midnight (@IFCMidnight) June 3, 2019
Even better than this? A portion of all sales in June go to the @LALGBTCenter: https://t.co/EKEfW92wvA
So yeah, we're the screaming kid right now and we're not sorry! pic.twitter.com/XjolmrX02i
Header Image Source: Amblin Entertainment
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