The woman: The beautiful Angelina Jolie in a role that allows her to reveal a new complexity to film audiences. Jolie plays Julia Russell, a woman of such commanding sexual confidence and so many entrancing secrets, men can't help but be driven to distraction.
The man: The sexy Antonio Banderas as Luis Vargas, a handsome Cuban businessman. Pragmatic and wealthy, he already has almost everything he could want. The only thing he doesn't have? A wife.
Using Cornell Woolrich's classic thriller Waltz Into Darkness as inspiration, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer/director Michael Cristofer takes a provocative look at the twisting, turning territory where lust and love lead ordinary people into lives of deception and murder.
Luis had wanted to marry without the complications of love - he knows an American bride will be the perfect status symbol and accessory to complement his life, and he meets Julia through correspondence. When Julia arrives in Cuba, however, everything he thought he wanted changes. Soon, all he wants is to possess her. She draws him into a realm of emotion and eroticism unlike any he's ever known, and he falls deeply in love.
From the beginning, however, Julia isn't much like the person she claimed to be in her letters. The photograph she sent was fake. Her stories are made up. There are unexplained scars on her back, lingering nightmares in her sleep, and a trunk she refuses to unlatch.
Then Luis is approached by Walter Downs (Thomas Jane), a private investigator with devastating news about Julia. Downs reveals that Julia might be a murderer and thief. Luis doesn't believe it, but then Julia disappears without a trace - with Luis's money.
In a rage and out for revenge, Luis embarks on a spiraling odyssey into Julia's world, uncovering her troubled past, her tanglings with a former lover, and, most shockingly, her ability to shut out her feelings and follow her most primal instincts for survival. Overwhelming obsession leads to a shocking climax, and Luis and Julia are forced to suffer the consequences.
About The Production
Writer/director Michael Cristofer himself adapted the sultry, obsessively sensual tale of Original Sin (2001) from Cornell Woolrich's novel Waltz Into Darkness. Woolrich is best known in Hollywood as the writer of It Had to be Murder (which inspired Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window (1954)) as well as Truffaut's celebrated Mariée était en noir, La (1967) (The Bride Wore Black)(based on Woolrich's novel of the same name), but Woolrich is also highly regarded as one of America's finest noir novelists.
In most of his novels (like The Black Path of Fear and The Black Curtain), Woolrich's vision casts an eerie pall of doom over the world, revealing the irrational acts and dark impulses that lead men and women astray. As Ellery Queen once wrote of Woolrich's work: "He can distill more terror, more excitement, more downright nail-biting suspense out of even the most commonplace happenings than nearly all his competitors. "
Waltz Into Darkness was Woolrich's most unusual and complex novel, and it turned the conventions of the murder-and-revenge genre inside out into a compelling and unexpected story of obsessive love. Dipping into the realm of the psychological thriller, Woolrich spun a rich, sweeping tale about a lonely man driven to near madness by his only encounter with love, an encounter with a woman who turns her feelings into dangerous games.
Reading Waltz Into Darkness, Michael Cristofer was struck not only by the excitement of the story but by the shockingly contemporary nature of its themes, themes such as the fierce tension between desire, power, sexuality and identity, which he decided to bring into the foreground in his adaptation. He was particularly intrigued by the daring, erotic undertone - and how it leads to revelations about why the characters act as they do.
"On the surface, this story is about the power of sexuality, and how far those instincts can lead and overpower you," says Cristofer. "But at its heart the story is really about acceptance of one's self - good and bad, dark and light. "
In writing the script, Cristofer became aware of how Julia and Luis play dangerous games with love - but only because they are both so desperate for it. "Julia is torn between two worlds," explains Cristofer, "one that is false, a con game, but which offers her love - and another that is more real but infinitely more dark and dangerous. Because she cannot accept herself as someone worthy of being loved, she tries to reject Luis's love. She becomes caught between the lighter side of herself and a much darker side - which, in this case, is very dark indeed. "
Luis, on the other hand, appears to be completely in control of his life - until he meets Julia. "Julia opens one door after another for him," says Cristofer. "In the beginning, there's an extraordinary discovery of the emotional side of himself, which he wasn't really in touch with before. Then, as the story progresses, he begins to explore a more shadowy part of himself and his obsession with Julia grows, leading into an almost criminal side of existence in his pursuit of her. Finally there is compromise - which I believe is the only way that love survives."
Cristofer also changed the locale of the story from Woolrich's New Orleans to the rarely visited island of Cuba - a place of similar physical heat, but also rife with underlying colonial tensions. Cuba's ethnic diversity, lush beauty and deeply expressive and jazzy culture also seemed to provide the perfect backdrop for a story that traverses through so many primal emotions and genres.
"Cuba has the same kind of mystery that New Orleans once had," notes Cristofer, "but it also adds another layer to the story. Due to the proximity of New York to Havana, Americans were everywhere. There were Americans trying to escape their lives in Cuba, like Julia, and there were Cubans who wanted all things American, as Luis does by sending for an American wife. Luis and Julia's heated relationship plays out in terms of sexual politics, but underneath there is also another element of colonial friction, of the American interest in Latin America and vice versa. "
In the end, Cristofer's script created an erotically-charged world rife with mystery. "It takes you to a place filled with intrigue and surprises," says line producer Michael Glick.
The heart of Original Sin's intrigue lies in the sexually charged cat-and-mouse game played by its two central characters: Julia and Luis. For Michael Cristofer, casting these two complex and demanding roles would be key to bringing his vision of the film to life. In Cristofer's mind there was never a doubt who should inhabit the role of Julia Russell. From the beginning, he hoped to work once again with Angelina Jolie, the Academy Award®-winning actress whom he helped to make a star with the HBO film Gia.
"Angelina always seemed the perfect choice," says Cristofer. "First of all, she's a great actress who's in touch with an almost transcendent side of herself, a side full of sweetness and truth. But Angelina is also fearlessly in touch with a side of herself that is darker and potentially dangerous. Like any good actor, she's not afraid to be in both of those worlds at the same time. This quality makes her ideal for Julia. "
Jolie was equally impressed with Cristofer's script, and especially by the remarkable character, a woman of savage strength and deep emotions simmering under her mysterious surface. "Julia is a character who talks to our most primal instincts," Jolie observes. "She's struggling with who she was, who she is, and who she can be - an explosive situation. "
"One of the things I love most about Michael's script," she continues, "is that it's about so many different things. It's about freedom and repression, love and obsession, about being tremendously alive and about struggling with who we are - and at the same time it's fun and exciting. "
There was also the added draw of working with Cristofer as a director. "I've never been more free on screen than I am when I'm working with Michael, because he's bold and understands sexuality better than any other filmmaker I can think of," states Jolie.
Through Julia, Jolie found herself exploring the many ways in which sexuality touches every aspect of human existence. "In this movie, sex is not just sex. It's also about discovery, freedom, possession, ownership, hate, anger and love," notes Jolie. "The sexuality in Original Sin doesn't just fill in the story - it's central to everything that happens to Luis and Julia. "
To capture that sexuality, Michael Cristofer knew he needed a leading man with a sensuality to equal Jolie's and an old-fashioned sincerity that could be believed. He found the perfect match in Antonio Banderas. "The two of them clicked immediately," says Cristofer. "They have that extraordinary, mysterious thing called chemistry. They're able to bring out all the interesting and complex questions the script raises about sex and power and the sexual politics that often rule our lives. "
Antonio Banderas says, "Working with Angelina has been one of the most beautiful experiences I've had with an actress in my career. She's very daring, a person who lives the character more than acts it. "
Banderas, who has sought out challenging roles since his early days in Spain working with Pedro Almodovar, responded enthusiastically to Original Sin and the character of Luis Vargas. He was particularly fascinated by Luis's contradictions - a wealthy man who has everything at his command yet feels empty inside.
"Luis reminded me of a saying we have in Spain: A man who doesn't want anything is invincible," says Banderas. "This is the way Luis feels in the beginning. But as soon as he falls for Julia, he becomes very vulnerable. For the love of this woman, Luis risks his fortune, his friends, his heart, and eventually his very life. "
Banderas was also intrigued by the story's shifting territory from love story to detective noir and back again. "Love, passion and obsession mix until you can no longer separate them," he says. "This is not your traditional love story. It's about the mysteries inside the souls of human beings, and at the same time a thriller with lots of twists and turns to surprise the audience. "
One of the most surprising characters is Detective Walter Downs, played by Thomas Jane, who loved the notion of playing someone never quite what they appear to be. "I was head over heels with the script, and was thrilled about the possibility of working with Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie," says Jane. "I liked that the story explored the wonderful tapestry of human emotions and desires. It's about passion and the utter loss of control that occurs when you let passion drive you. "
To complete the cast, Cristofer drew upon a pool of fine stage and screen actors, many of whom he had previously worked with either on stage or in Gia, including Allison Mackie, Joan Pringle, Cordelia Richards and Gregory Itzin. He also took advantage of some of Mexico's most experienced performers, including Pedro Armendáriz.
Original Sin was filmed almost entirely in Mexico, which makes for an atmospheric and authentic stand-in for off-limits Cuba. Since Cuba and Mexico were both colonized by Spain in the 16th century, they share architectural styles and the romantic and slightly doomed colonial feel that permeates the movie. Fortunately, Mexico's lush tropical coastlines also resemble Cuba's Caribbean physical landscape.
Cristofer wanted a look for the film that would capture both the sultriness of the landscape and its echo in the shadowy, sensual movements of the film's unpredictable main characters. He chose Rodrigo Prieto, one of Mexico's most talented young cinematographers, to help him translate the story into equally haunting visuals.
Prieto was immediately intrigued. "When I read the script, I knew that I had to do the movie," he recalls. "The intimacy of the story and the Cuban backdrops made it ripe with visual possibilities. "
Cristofer and Prieto designed an elaborately fluid look for the film, with meticulously choreographed camera movements. The director was admittedly influenced by the remarkable classic 1950s films of Max Ophuls, particularly lola montès (1955) and earrings of Madame De., The (1953) both of which melded romantic stories with revolutionarily elegant camerawork in which the camera actually seemed to be alive.
To pull off this stylized camerawork, Cristofer and Prieto used state-of-the-art equipment, which often led to a humorous juxtaposition of high tech tools in antique locations - such as when a huge, long-armed Swiss Crane was wheeled into the 16th century Parroquia del Sagrario Catedral in Tlaxcala, one of the first churches built by the Spanish in the new world of Mexico.
Meanwhile, production designer David J. Bomba was faced with the awesome task of finding appropriate interior and exterior locations throughout Mexico to double for three cities in Cuba - Santiago, Cardenas and Havana. "Michael Cristofer and I started by deciding what the color palette would be for the film - exteriors that were light-reflective, and interior colors that would give the impression of being cool in the tropical heat of Cuba," notes Bomba.
The production team discovered an astonishing number of locations ranging over hundreds of miles in Mexico, beginning with an abandoned hacienda on a former sugar cane plantation in the tiny village of Oacalco, about 30 minutes outside of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos. Known as the Hacienda Oacalco, it was tranformed by Bomba and his team into Luis' magnificent terraced coffee plantation residence. The Hacienda itself was dripping with legend and lore - including the fact that it was once home to the lover of the great Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and the rumor that a former owner made "a deal with the devil" and never returned from a nearby mountain.
Other locations included the 16th century Hacienda de Cortes in Cuernevaca (where Luis and Julia's wedding scene was filmed), the charming 19th century Teatro Xicohtencatl (which stands in for the theatre Luis and Julia attend), the historical city of Pueblo, and the walled, tropical city of Campeche in the Yucatan.
In bustling downtown Mexico City, the elegant, marble-floored Casino Espanol served as the Havana hotel where a colorful Caribbean carnival spills from the street outside into the lobby.
Another downtown Mexico City setting was the famed Bar Opera, which still has a hole in its ceiling from a shot fired by none other than Pancho Villa himself during the Mexican Revolution.
Bomba designed and constructed additional sets at Churubusco Studios, including an entire townhouse - both interior and exterior - that Luis and Julia inhabit in the town of Cardenas. Here, Bomba took full advantage of Mexico's extraordinarily talented artisans. "This country is so rich in its craftsmen," he says. "We had wonderful carpenters and incredible plasterers. I could give them a detailed drawing, or even a sketch or photograph, and in a matter of hours they'd give us a sample of a beautifully hand-carved element. And because the costs of certain materials are so reasonable, we could use real wood, stone and tile, rather than substitutes. "
Costume designer Donna Zakowska designed some 2000 costumes for Original Sin, approximately 400 of which were manufactured from the first thread to final outfit in New York, Los Angeles and London. The place and time depicted in the film have never before been explored on film, which meant that Zakowska had to do extensive research into Cuba's great melting pot of classes and races, with influences that range from Africa to Europe. Zakowska even found herself creating an entire carnival's worth of masks and headdresses.
She paid extraordinary attention to detail throughout - and to character. "Antonio dresses in light colors as would befit a Cuban aristocrat living in a tropical country, but we wanted to make his look more sophisticated than the typical linen suit, so his costumes are all made of very light English wool," she explains. "Angelina, on the other hand, we dress from a very modern point of view, with an edge. "
Adding to the film's extraordinary detail are the accoutrements of everyday life provided by Academy Award®-nominated set decorator Beth Rubino (Cider House Rules, the (1999)) and property master John Bankson. Carriages, visas, steamship tickets, furniture, artwork, books - all had to be meticulously researched, discovered or re-created by rubino, Bankson and their crews, bringing to life a bygone world of exotic atmosphere that provides a palpably sensual backdrop to the human mystery of Original Sin.
Throughout filming in Mexico, "Antonio Mania" often reigned as thousands of Banderas's fans surrounded locations and chased after the star every time he left his trailer. Yet the fans were wonderfully cooperative. "When we asked literally thousands of fans surrounding the shoot in the streets of Pueblo to be quiet, you could have heard a pin drop," explains executive producer Michael Glick. "There was a wonderful innocence and enthusiasm to Antonio's fans that made it a very positive experience. "
The actors themselves had a grand time, journeying through authentic parts of Mexico ripe with a romantic moodiness that inspired their performances. "This is a place where the deeper you look the more you find," says Thomas Jane of Mexico. "The food is rich and spicy, the women are beautiful, the sun is hot and you can inhale the smells of a rich, complex society. Even on the days in Campeche where it was 110 degrees, it was the perfect setting for a film about the deepest desires of the soul. "
"I think this is one of those films where you can really see onscreen the pleasure we had in making it," summarizes Angelina Jolie. "It was a real adventure, a real creative adventure. "