Thematically, according to writer/director Martin Brest, Gigli is linked to his other movies. “Increasingly, I’ve found myself being pulled towards a central character who comes off mean, angry and unsympathetic. Gradually, another side is revealed. The fact that a character feels compelled to adopt a harsh outer shell to keep from being hurt has always interested me.”
Larry Gigli’s (Ben Affleck) journey is one of a man who imagines himself as one kind of person and through the course of the film, surprises himself when other facets of his personality begin to emerge. Not only did Brest find this dramatically interesting, but also a wonderful repository for humor.
“There was an atmosphere on the set that encouraged us to explore the funny side of Gigli’s dilemma,” says Brest. “Not so much the joke-funny side, but the serious-funny side. There are moments when the characters are flipped out about some horrible thing that’s happened to them, which turns funny when a certain insight emerges. That’s the kind of observation we were always looking for.”
Once he had completed the script for Gigli, Brest turned to his producing partner Casey Silver, with whom he has an association dating back almost to the start of his career. “We met on Beverly Hills Cop, explains Silver, “when I was the head of development for Simpson-Bruckheimer Productions. At the last moment, we had a cast change, replacing Sylvester Stallone with Eddie Murphy, and Marty and I found ourselves thrust into the circumstance of having to redevelop the material with an impending start date. Later, when I ran production for Universal, Marty made Midnight Run. He followed that with Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black. We’ve worked together for a long time now.”
ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
“I didn’t really think about any particular actor to play Gigli during the writing process,” says Brest. “The most important thing was to create a central character who is stuck in time, who has somehow missed the opportunity to grow and progress.”
Brest sees Larry Gigli as a man that time forgot, someone who, despite his good looks and charm, lives in the past and is a bit removed from his contemporaries. “His sensibility hails from another era, twenty or thirty years ago, which immediately makes him kind of sad,” says Brest. “His peers have moved on, gotten married, started families, and Gigli is still at his two-bit job, living alone in a dumpy apartment. Somewhere along the way, he took the wrong road and he’s stuck. So he postures, covers up, tries to pretend he’s a tough guy.”
When he finished writing the character of Gigli, Brest’s mind turned to casting the central role. “I thought of Ben for a couple of reasons,” he says. “He has the physical presence to make Gigli intimidating, but he also possesses a wonderful vulnerability. He has a very outgoing nature that, simultaneously, reveals a certain amount of self-doubt. Ben understands the character’s contradictions, his bullying, thug-like behavior and that layer of sensitivity. It was fascinating to watch him juggle those emotions. He kept both elements going at all times, balancing them effortlessly.”
Vital to the story’s progress is the character of Ricki, who Gigli meets through his kidnapping assignment. Her sensibility and outlook on life couldn’t be more different and it shakes Gigli up, opens up a new world to him.
Ricki, Brest admits, was a difficult part to cast. She had to be beautiful, sexy and strong, but also gentle. “She had to be someone who can look you right in the eye and tell you exactly what she’s thinking, someone who doesn’t care what you think about her, and yet, her manner is soft and sensual. Even as I say it, I realize I’m talking about Jennifer Lopez.”
"The first time we saw Ben and Jennifer share a frame together, it was immediately clear that they possessed that elusive thing called chemistry,” says Silver.
“Beneath the palpable sexual tension that informs their relationship, both actors give carefully calibrated performances under Marty's meticulous direction,” Silver continues. “Ben's Larry Gigli is a nuanced character whose brash demeanor masks his truer feelings. Jennifer's character, Ricki, has her own secret and also a wisdom that allows her to see through Larry's exterior persona. This dynamic creates an escalating tension that ultimately breaks down each character’s defenses and portends a more hopeful future."
Lopez had the confidence and presence to embody Ricki’s ability “to let Gigli know, in no uncertain terms, that his bullying had no effect on her,” Brest says. “And she lets him know it’s not who he really is. She’s someone who can be intimidating just by being cool, level headed and logical. Most importantly, she brought an affection and sweetness to Ricki as well.” Ricki’s combination of strength and beauty proves to be a powerful aphrodisiac for Gigli. “Nobody has ever affected Gigli this way before and he falls madly in love with her,” Brest explains.
With two icons like Affleck and Lopez in the lead roles, Brest and Silver decided to go in the opposite direction when casting the role of Brian, opting for an unknown to bring a balance to the mix. They found newcomer Justin Bartha through an open casting call. “Marty saw his tape and thought he was fantastic,” Silver recalls. “The verisimilitude and the authenticity of the character of Brian were essential for the story to work and Justin pulled it off with great aplomb. He was a true find.”
What tipped the scales in Bartha’s favor, according to Brest, was “the quality of his acting and the consistently new ways he found to explore the character of Brian.”
Brest drew on his past in fashioning the character of Brian. While still in college he worked at Bronx State Hospital, which he laughingly says “was the best possible preparation for being a movie director, if for no other reason that I found myself identifying more with the patients than with the staff.”
At Bronx State Hospital, Brest was intrigued by the variety of behaviors, disorders and pathologies he encountered. “I love the idea of a character being challenged in some way. But somehow, he feels he is missing out on something that others in the real world enjoy, a vague desire for something he doesn’t fully understand. That’s there in Justin’s portrayal of Brian.”
Brest knew that he needed a strong actress to portray Gigli’s overbearing mother, a small role that has great impact. When he first considered Lainie Kazan, he was concerned she might be too perfect for the role. But he relented when he saw the unexpected facets she brought to her reading. “Gigli’s mom is the kind of mother who loves her son in such a big and nakedly unselfconscious way, that it just makes him want to cringe,” explains Brest. “There’s something kind of adorable about seeing this tough-guy being whipped around by his mother. And for Ricki to see Gigli being embarrassed by his mother, seemed to be a situation that was fraught with possibilities.”
The role of Starkman, the big-time mobster from New York, whose very presence sends tremors of fear through the room, was assigned to Al Pacino, who won an Academy Award® the last time he worked with Brest on Scent of a Woman. “Al obviously generates an exciting, entertaining theatrical performance, but what takes it into this stratosphere is that he gives you whole new insights into human nature when he creates a character, which is my definition of a great actor.”
For Lopez and Affleck, whose characters’ lives depend on how they navigate around Starkman’s insanity, working with Pacino was an invaluable learning experience. “I learned so much from Al. Even if he had done just the rehearsal, I would have walked away with enough to become a better actor,” says Lopez. “I’ve never been in a room where so much power comes out of one human being. After every take, my stomach was in knots. He had me scared that he just might have a bullet in that gun. It was crazy, but amazing.”
ABOUT THE STORY
That “Gigli is a man with a name that nobody can pronounce, is yet another in an endless series of embarrassments for the character,” explains Affleck. “My character is essentially a guy who’s living a life he doesn’t really feel is his. He’s faking it. Underneath his macho posturing is someone who’s actually very sweet and very unhappy. The story resonated with me in a way that usually doesn’t happen when I read a script. It was extremely strange, unusual and heart breaking. What I didn’t see was how funny it was. Then as we played out some of the scenes, I realized that it has a great deal of humor.”
In many ways, Affleck continues, Gigli breaks all the rules of conventional movies and was, for that reason, a liberating experience for him as an actor. “You have a not very likable protagonist whose behavior goes against the grain of how people should behave. The woman is not an ingénue. Gigli’s attracted to her and also intimidated by her. It was exciting to try to do something where you didn’t have to follow all the normal guidelines of movie behavior.”
The “strange family dynamic” of the three central characters constantly changes throughout the story, which made it intriguing to play, according to Affleck. “As Gigli and Ricki are shuttling this mentally troubled kid around he starts to act like a father toward Brian. At other times it’s Ricki who is the father and Gigli who acts like the wife. So all our expectations are constantly being challenged. It speaks to the idea of how we create families, and I think people will be able to relate to some of the scenes with the three of them.”
Lopez’s character is veiled in mystery. “Ricki shows up out of nowhere and she’s a very self-confident, self-assured enforcer,” says Lopez. “But then she starts quoting pearls of ancient Asian wisdom. Somehow, that doesn’t quite fit the profile.”
Like Gigli, Ricki also develops genuine feelings for Brian. “She comes to see him as a little brother and wants to take care of him. Without realizing it, the three of them create a familial bond, however dysfunctional it may be.”
There is a price to be paid for these attachments, however, Lopez points out. “This starts off as a routine babysitting job for Ricki and Gigli. I don’t think either of them has any idea that the situation is going to escalate, until they realize they’re in way over their heads, having kidnapped the brother of a federal prosecutor.”
It is the pivotal role of Brian, the guileless innocent, who changes the destinies of Gigli and Ricki. Explains Brest, “all Brian really wants is to get to this imaginary place where life will be perfect – a kind of hallucinatory state based on what he’s seen over the years on television. He refers to it as ‘The Baywatch,’ but it’s not the TV series he’s talking about. In essence, it’s really about all that he lacks in his life -- normality, sexuality, being attractive, having a date. But it all gets jumbled up in his head and he thinks if he could just get to that place, he would be normal and maybe even have a girlfriend.”
According to Bartha, “the Baywatch is Brian’s fantasy of a “normal” life. If he can only get there … if he can just reach it, he’ll be “normal” too.”
The actor anchored Brian’s fantasy in common experiences. “Brian basically has one goal throughout the movie and that is to get to “The Baywatch,” he says. So with that in mind, most of Brian’s actions must be accented by that intention. In the end, it is actually the journey that transforms Brian, not the destination.”
The journey itself could not have happened without Gigli. “Brian isn’t necessarily aware that he has been kidnapped. He’s presented an opportunity to fulfill his fantasy and he sees Gigli as the guy that will take him there. What neither Gigli nor Brian expected was a friendship developing on the way.”
Then in walks Ricki and she throws Brian for a loop. “In the beginning, he’s a bit hesitant towards her,” Bartha explains. “Everything is so new and exciting for Brian. He’s never seen such a beautiful woman. But Ricki immediately takes on a motherly role towards him and protects him from an initially hostile situation.”
Bartha’s portrayal was both physically and emotionally demanding for the young actor. “There is always a physicality that goes along with the creation of any character,” he states. “The key was just to figure out who this person is, where he is from and what he wants. When that is done, all I have to do is get lost in the character.
On creating the character, Bartha states, “Through all the research that I did, I noticed one common thread with most of the disabled men and women that I encountered: They are honest, optimistic and live in the moment.” He then went on to say, “I've learned so much throughout this experience and now I'm just trying to enjoy the journey and not think too much of the destination."
In a way, Affleck drew upon that concept in creating his character arc as well. “Gigli is someone who is relatively hopeless, yet through his interactions with Brian he finds out who he really is and starts living his life. Instead of being stuck in his life, he comes to appreciate that there’s something sad and beautiful and melancholy and exciting about the almost infinite possibilities of each new day,” says Affleck. “At the same time, people will find humor in the story and the ability to smile in the face of adversity. And that is completely Marty’s sensibility.”
THE COMMON DENOMINATOR
“Working with Marty, we found ourselves on the same wavelength in terms of the things we think about, our senses of humor and the way we look at the world,” says Affleck. “He’s someone whose passion and enthusiasm for making movies is tireless. He is an artist and a technician and a craftsman, and he is unflagging in his determination. He does many more takes than anybody I’ve ever worked with. It’s a great luxury for an actor because it gives you room to experiment, to go anywhere you want to go. I think he truly loves actors. I know he loves movies.”
Lopez adds: “Marty is very nurturing towards actors. When you have a director who rewards you with a kind word or gesture, it is priceless. And Marty would jump up and down and dance around and scream when a take was particularly good. Also, when you’re working with a director who also wrote the script, it makes things easier because he knows exactly what he meant when he wrote it, without having any ego about his material. He was only interested in what was going to make the best movie and bring out the best performances.”
The appeal for Lainie Kazan was that “I really loved the script and the character’s great sense of humor and sense of the dramatic. And, by the way, can I tell you how interested I was to work with Marty Brest? I actually auditioned for this part. Marty interacted with me and was very supportive. Then, when we shot my scenes, I never felt like he needed to control me. It’s very rare to be directed in such an open, positive way. It was also wonderful to work with Ben Affleck. He’s such an intelligent and terrific actor. The entire experience was a very creative and joyful one.”
Lopez recalls “every single take was a big surprise when I was working with Christopher Walken. I think part of his magic is that even he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. There was one take when he made me laugh, which was a mistake. He saw it and was about to stop until he saw how it had affected me. So we kept going and it turned into a magical moment. It had that element of spontaneity that happens between actors when they can continue in a moment that is real as opposed to something that has been worked on so much that it loses its spark.”
“Marty gives you plenty of chances to do your best,” Walken says. “It’s hard when you go home at night and think, ‘I wish we had had that extra take because I could have done it differently, or better or whatever.’ With Marty, every night I went home thinking ‘I don’t know whether it was good, but I certainly did get a chance to do my best.’’
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Principal photography on Gigli utilized more than 20 Los Angeles locations as well as sound stages at the historic Culver Studios.
In fact, the city of Los Angeles might well be called one of the movie’s co-stars.
“I’ve been living in Los Angeles for a long time,” says Brest, “but because I’m one of those displaced New Yorkers who love New York, I’ve always set my movies there. Before I started writing Gigli, I found myself exploring Los Angeles in a way I had never done before, gravitating towards downtown L.A., an area that people in the movie industry rarely have occasion to visit. And I became fascinated by the fact that within the city I live there’s this entirely different city with its own aesthetic.”
Brest was intrigued by downtown L.A.’s ramshackle qualities. “There’s something fascinating about the slight state of disrepair it’s in and the almost negligible architecture. I wanted to show a very particular personality of the city, a uniquely transient, depressing side.”
The film’s most important set was Gigli’s apartment. The building the set is based on is located in Hollywood where the exterior scenes were filmed. The interior was the responsibility of production designer Gary Frutkoff and his team.
“Gary was the designer on Out of Sight, a movie I worked on when I was at Universal,” explains Casey Silver. “I thought he could capture that haunted feeling that Los Angeles can have for a lot of people, that distinctive and vacant loneliness.”
In his first meeting with Brest, Frutkoff realized his main challenge was Gigli’s apartment. The script called for 45 minutes of the story to take place in this one location. How to treat the space outside the apartment windows on a sound stage is always a pressing concern for the production designer. Translights (giant photographic slides that are commonly used) would be too stagnant and predictable for such a long shoot. Rear projection or computer effects would add life, but would be cost prohibitive. The answer came when location manager, Ken Lavet, showed Brest and Frutkoff photos of a mid-century apartment building in Hollywood. The cement courtyard, pool and palms were bathed in a harsh southern California sunlight reminiscent of a David Hockney photomontage. The courtyard and pool would become their template.
Then Frutkoff’s set decorator Maggie Martin and her crew were assigned the difficult task of enhancing this environment through sheer minimalism. “The character doesn’t read, so there were no books,’ explains Brest. “They couldn’t hang things on the walls because Gigli has no art. Every day they’d make a suggestion and I’d say ‘no, you can’t put that in.’ It’s much easier to dress a set with lots of things than a set that has nothing, but they did a magnificent job. One of my favorite subtle details is a little wall between the dining room and the living room. It’s in the background in practically every shot and we had discussions about putting a picture on it. We tried all kinds of prints and photographs and nothing really worked. Finally we decided it was best left empty. All that’s there is a painted nail, as though there had been something hanging there at one time. To me it perfectly captured the atmosphere.”
Recalls Frutkoff, “This was a character-driven piece, which I’m always attracted to and it had really good dialogue and heart. But I had to ask myself, ‘If the story is about a guy who doesn’t care about aesthetics and doesn’t have much in the way of possessions, how do we make it interesting?’ Then, Marty and I went for a drive through Hollywood. We gravitated off the Sunset Strip, which gave us the geography of a socio-economic area where Gigli might hang out. We drove through one neighborhood that we thought was very dramatic because it was high up in the hills, which is always better than shooting in flat areas.”
During their scouting expedition, Frutkoff and Brest also saw a 1967 Impala Supersport parked in a garage. "We immediately thought Gigli would have that kind of car, which sparked a conversation about a retro element of the story. The neighborhood we were looking at seemed to have a late '50s, early '60s vibe. Once we saw that car it gave us a material point to work from, which led to Gigli's wardrobe as well as all the other environments and locations. We wanted the film to feel like it was on the verge of slipping into a period picture."
More specific elements of the film’s tonal and color palette were incorporated as the production went along, Frutkoff continues. “For example, we’d be looking at locations, like a taco stand, where there was a beautiful palette of pink and aqua, very Latino. There was a mural there and the design was exactly what Marty had had in his mind for that location. “
The crucial apartment set interior was built on a soundstage and included a courtyard measuring 60-feet wide by about 110 feet long with a real swimming pool and a jacuzzi. In addition, across the way there were 12 to 15 apartments, two stories high with real palm trees and shrubbery outside. Brest was trying to suggest “the lack of a real life,” he says. “It’s like a struggling actor’s first apartment and every actor who came to the set said, ‘I lived in that place.’”
Aesthetically, Brest continues, the interior of the apartment had to suggest Gigli’s inner turmoil, as if he’s thinking ‘how in the hell did I get here and what the hell am I doing?’ The effect was realized through the accrual of minor details. For example, one of the electrical outlets has a burned spot on it as if it had shorted out. Cigarette burns were applied to the mantle and then it was painted over.
“These are things you might never look at,” says Frutkoff, “but we’re inside this apartment for so long, you might just notice them and they add to the story.”
Brest’s director of photography choice was Robert Elswit, who has memorably depicted Los Angeles in such Paul Thomas Anderson films as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. “I particularly liked what he did with Magnolia,” says Brest. “It’s tricky to make a movie visually interesting when it’s basically about characters in small settings. But Bob seems to have a sense of how to showcase the performers while still achieving visual distinctiveness.”
“Marty and I talked very specifically about the look of this film,” explains Elswit. “The lighting on a movie is usually script driven and then filtered through the director. Marty has a very classic approach to lighting design and a great sense of pictorial style. He rarely deviates from the use of three or four lenses. He repeats the same kind of image sizes in close-ups and medium shots. He uses a classic style of coverage and image sizes that go back to the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking.”
The film’s lighting style is naturalistic, Elswit continues. “It was all about the feeling of sunlight invading Gigli’s apartment, which character it hit and where. Without question, the most expressive element in movies, and all the visual arts, is light and dark. More than design, more than color, it’s always about light. Light has always represented the gaining of wisdom and understanding and knowledge.”
In Gigli, the lighting is broken down by character, says Elswit. Since Brian “represents the gaining of wisdom, knowledge and understanding, he was lit in such a way as to reflect that.”
Because the interior of Gigli’s apartment was built on a soundstage, Elswit had control over the direction of the exterior light, though creating the feeling of sunlight and casting shadows was not as easy, he confesses. “You don’t want to over-fill the set with light. And you need a lot of single light sources to create a single shadow on different parts of a building. We were very fortunate to be able to shoot camera tests in each room before principal photography began so we could see how they would look at different times of day.”
Outdoors, however, the lighting was harder to control, especially during the driving scenes in an open convertible. “I didn’t really light the actors as much as augment the sunlight. Where we drove the car, in which direction, on which streets and at what time of day – all those variables had to be taken into account.”
Costume designer Michael Kaplan, who has done several films for director David Fincher, most recently Panic Room, was Brest’s choice, in particular because “I thought what Michael did in Fight Club was one of the freshest, boldest, most originally creative things I had seen in years,” says Brest.
Through his discussions with Brest, Kaplan explains, he began to conjure up what the characters would wear. “I try to design the costumes from the inside out so that the character is not just wearing attractive clothes. In fact, sometimes the clothes are not attractive at all. All of the clothing should give the viewer some information about the character, what their income level might be, whether they’re bohemian or well to do. That’s the sort of information we want to illuminate in the wardrobe.”
The right clothes, Kaplan continues, not only help the director realize his vision, but make the actors feel more like the characters they’re playing. “I didn’t want Ben’s character to be the cliché of a mob guy. I thought he should have some sort of formality about him when he was dealing with his bosses or the people who gave him assignments. To me, that meant a sport coat or a suit jacket. As for suits, they seemed wrong for him. I wanted to keep him younger and cooler than that, so we made a leather jacket that was cut like a suit jacket and combined different style elements.”
Because the story transpires over a few days, Gigli doesn’t have many changes. “So each costume had to be right on the nose,” says Kaplan. “In terms of his palette, I though he’d be wearing blacks and burgundy. Also, because he’s in Los Angeles, a city with a temperate climate, I put Ben in a lot of loose fitting or tropical casual shirts that had a slightly retro feeling. Interestingly, it reminded me of how people dressed when I was growing up in the 60s in South Philadelphia.”
Like Gigli, Ricki is not a woman of means, yet Kaplan wanted her to have her own style. As he did with the character in Flashdance, he created a stylized tee shirt for Ricki to wear that would telescope her personality and individuality. He worked closely with Lopez on all of her costumes. “I found Jennifer’s knowledge of her body and what looks good on her to be an enormous help. She was incredibly open to trying things on even if she thought they weren’t going to work for her.”
When it came to dressing the character of Brian, Kaplan was faced with a dilemma. Since the character is handicapped and only wears a single outfit throughout the film, he didn’t want it to explicitly announce his mental state. Instead, he took the middle road with an outfit “that didn’t match too well, but didn’t clash either. There were certain elements I wanted to achieve – a certain childlike quality and something that could change as the movie went on even though Brian is in just one costume.”
Since most of the film is shot in winter, Kaplan layered Bartha’s costume, which afforded him the opportunity to vary his look by putting on or taking off a particular layer depending on whether Brian was indoors or outdoors. “When Brian is out in public and Gigli is trying to hide him, we put him in a leather jacket and a stocking cap. He looks like some young, hip rap musician. And because of the disguise, Justin adapted this other persona as well.”
Kaplan traveled to New York to meet with Pacino about his wardrobe, narrowing down a wide choice of costumes to three for Brest to choose from. Pacino, with his particular eye for detail, seemed to have an instinctual feel for what worked for him, Kaplan recalls. “The character of Starkman is very imposing. In person Al doesn’t seem that imposing until he starts acting. Then he becomes whatever he wants to become.”