By the afternoon of March 26, the rains that had soaked Los Angeles earlier in the day had tapered off, and the sun was shining over the Paramount Studios lot. Bungalow windows opened wide, inviting spring, and production assistants pedaled their bikes among the soundstages and stucco buildings. Business as usual, except for the hoarse shouts of producer Robert Evans that came thundering out his office window.
The 62-year-old producer had plenty of cause to yowl. Over the last year, he had gambled his comeback from personal and professional ruin on Sliver — the very expensive $33 million and rising), very erotic thriller that, only two months before its May 21 opening, appeared to be in serious trouble. The stakes were just as high for the other creative principals involved. As a Manhattan book editor seduced into a world of voyeurism and murder, neo-femme fatale Sharon Stone was eager to prove herself worthy of the hype that has swirled around her since she showed the world her skirt’s deepest secrets in last year’s Basic Instinct. For her costar, William Baldwin, who plays her young seducer, Sliver represented a chance to rival big brother Alec as the family’s hottest star. And for Sherry Lansing, the recently installed chairman and CEO of Paramount who had made Sliver her pet project, the film was destined either to give her studio an early lead in the summer box office race, or drop it back into the yearlong slump that preceded Indecent Proposal.
When Sliver went into production last fall, it certainly seemed like a sure bet: Hollywood’s most sought-after leading lady combined with a sexy you-like-to-watch-don’t-you plot. The movie finished photography at the end of February, but as early as March 26 it seemed the players were about to lose big-time. The director, Phillip Noyce, was a prisoner in his own editing room, struggling to make, he claims, 110 changes in order to avoid the box office poison of an NC-17 rating, and disagreements with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board had degenerated into daily shouting matches by telephone between Noyce and Paramount.
Not that the production of Sliver had ever been a day in Malibu. During production, Baldwin and Stone had quickly cooled to each other (”Thin lips, okay breath,” he quipped to a crew member when he finished one love scene). And during reshoots, costar Tom Berenger (who plays Stone’s neighbor) had blasted the director for ”sneaking around and manipulating” the cast. Rumor had it that the budget had ballooned to $50 million. And when the film was finally complete, a test screening in early March had elicited no reaction during — gasp! — the sex scenes, and left audiences bewildered over Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ original ending, in which the killer got the girl.
Evans’ voice, as soothing as a jeep on gravel, carried far outside his office as he ranted about Sliver‘s latest battle with the ratings board. ”F— ’em!” he growled to a roomful of Paramount executives. ”Let’s just go for the NC-17!”
Then Evans’ famous nasal rasp went suddenly silent. He clutched his chest, his tan fading to white for the first time in decades. The next morning, he awoke in a private room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The project on which so much had come to depend began three years ago with a late-night conversation between two veteran players at Evans’ private bungalow at the Palm Springs Racquet Club. During the ’70s, as Paramount’s VP of production and an independent producer, Evans — who began in the business in the ’50s as a B-movie actor — had helped put the studio on top with Love Story, the first two Godfather films, Chinatown, and Marathon Man. But in 1980 he was convicted of a cocaine possession misdemeanor. The disaster of 1984’s The Cotton Club diminished him financially, and in 1990 his reputation was destroyed when a former girlfriend was arrested for the murder of another Cotton Club producer. Evans, who was never charged with any crime, virtually dropped out of Hollywood.
Then agent Sue Mengers sent him Ira Levin’s novel Sliver, about a woman whose voyeuristic tendencies get the better of her. ”You have a relationship with Ira Levin,” she told Evans, who had produced 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby from Levin’s book. ”Get on your knees and try to get this project.”
”I started reading it at 11 at night,” Evans recalls. ”I couldn’t put it down.” But he ran into problems right away. The only director Levin wanted was Roman Polanski, whose 1977 flight from the United States after his arrest for having unlawful sex with a minor prevents him from returning to America. For months, Evans pleaded with Levin’s agent to sell him Sliver‘s movie rights, and even briefly toyed with moving the film’s location to Paris in order to get Polanski. A year and a half after Evans first tried to buy the rights, he spoke to Warren Beatty, who advised him to send Levin a copy of Polanski’s 1984 autobiography, Roman, which credits Evans with the success of Rosemary’s Baby.
It worked. By the end of 1991, Evans had secured the rights to Sliver for just under — 500,000. Things were looking up; Paramount chairman Stanley Jaffe decided to give Evans a chance and installed him in his old offices on the Paramount lot. ”I want the picture to be successful for Stanley,” says Evans. ”He gave me a second shot at life.”
Joe Eszterhas began transforming Sliver into a screenplay, and Evans was delighted when his original draft proved to be taut and eerie. (Not to mention cheap; since it was an adaptation, Eszterhas charged less than a third of his usual $3 million fee, plus a box office percentage.)
Last Memorial Day, Paramount executives told Evans they wanted the film to go into production immediately. Evans hired director Noyce, who had proved himself a good hand at suspense with the gripping 1989 thriller Dead Calm, and was eager to solidify his position as an A-list filmmaker.
Next Evans began his manic pursuit of Sharon Stone. She wasn’t easy. Hot off Basic Instinct, she had become the actress of the moment — and besides, she had her eye on another Paramount film, The Lady Takes an Ace, which was foundering for lack of a leading man. Sliver, she told Evans, was too close in genre to Basic Instinct. But Evans had an ally in Eszterhas, who had befriended Stone as they battled Instinct‘s critics. Eszterhas had even written the role of Sliver‘s Carly Norris — described with either unkindness or flexibility in the script as ”the kind of woman who, given the day, could look either 35 or 45” — with Stone, 35, in mind, and eventually attempted to lure the actress by making Carly more complex.
With October 13, the first day of the film’s 15-week shoot, fast approaching, Stone still wouldn’t commit. So Evans resorted to desperate measures: He bluffed big. ”Knowing a woman’s head about competitiveness with other women,” as he puts it, he told her Demi Moore wanted the picture so badly that her husband, Bruce Willis, was willing to costar for free. It didn’t work. Then, with three days left to cast the lead, Evans piled it on by telling her, ”Geena Davis is ready to go into makeup on Monday.” That did it: Davis had been among the actresses sought for Instinct before Stone. ”If this picture works,” Evans told her, ”you have a bounty tag, a price tag that’s higher than anybody in the industry.”