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'The Road to Wellville': Bed, Baths, and Beyond

Filming was enough to make you sick

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Peer through the cigarette smoke billowing about the cavernous hall and you might make out the ”Temple of Health” stencil winding its way up the wall. Here in the grand ritual room of a former Masonic temple in Wilmington, N.C., ever-puffing British director Alan Parker is guiding his equally nicotine- dependent crew through a ballroom dance, one of the statelier scenes in his raucous swipe at America’s obsession with perfecting the body.

It’s Feb. 4, 1994, the 48th day of shooting The Road to Wellville, based on T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1993 novel about J. Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek, Mich. The turn-of-the-century champion of breakfast flakes, enemas, and sexual abstinence is played by Anthony Hopkins, but Hopkins has escaped to warmer climes, while the remaining actors (among them Matthew Broderick, Bridget Fonda, and Camryn Manheim, who play guests at Kellogg’s spa) huddle around space heaters, alternately sipping diet Coke and popping the vitamins offered on the craft-service table along with chocolate and cookies. Parker, who rewrote the scene only five minutes before, paces and inhales and picks safety pins off the floor, ”for luck,” he explains, as he interlocks them on his raggedy gray cardigan, which carries what Parker claims is another sign of fortune: bird droppings.

Broderick and British actor John Neville are lounging miserably nearby, trying to maneuver parkas around their waistcoats. Broderick, who plays Will Lightbody, hapless husband to Fonda’s Eleanor, is pulling at his shirt. ”You can’t move, your pants are up to your waist, and if you bend your neck, the collar cuts into your throat,” he grumbles. ”But it’s kind of nice to be standing up straight.”

The period costume and sets may prompt comparison with The Age of Innocence — a film the perennially pacing Parker calls an example of ”a director taking himself a bit too seriously.” But the similarities stop there. Parker’s project is filled with flying feces, vomit, and enough exercise equipment to make a Nautilus circuit seem like a trip to heaven. ”Nothing grossed me out,” says Fonda, but she didn’t endure anything more than a dunk in a fake mud bath. ”I have had to s— into a dish,” says Broderick, flashing a blackened fingernail that got between him and his telephone when he slammed down the receiver on his longstanding girlfriend, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, the night before. ”But it’s done very tastefully. We never show anything real. Like I vomit twice, and both times my head drops out of frame.”

Hours later, on the Carolco soundstage two blocks down from Total Recall Boulevard and one over from Rambo Drive, Broderick is adding more bruises to his body. Here, in a series of mahogany-paneled rooms that double for the Battle Creek Sanitarium’s exercise facilities, his skeptical Will is whipped and beaten into shape by vibrating chairs, butt wobblers, and flagellation machines. Constructing the fantastic facilities took a large chunk of the movie’s $25 million budget, and while Kellogg would have approved of the film’s financial priorities, ”(the cast) isn’t getting paid that much,” says Broderick. ”In some ways, it has a nice camaraderie to it.”

Indeed, cast and crew have found refuge in the subject matter. ”You got boogies in your nose,” a crew member teases the passing Manheim, who plays the sexually liberated Virginia. As Broderick prepares to disrobe and ease himself into a sinusoidal bath beside Neville, he says of his own character, ”In some ways (he’s) a 5-year-old. He’s trapped in this place of potty training. He’s either overly happy or trying to sleep with his nurse or begging his wife to come back to him. Or he’s vomiting. It’s always full-out.” Fonda is more forgiving. ”They’re people like you and me, fumbling through life blindfolded and gagged, trying to find their way.”

Back in the baths, playing a scene in which volts of electricity ripple through the water, Neville and Broderick pretend to be in a state of ecstasy. ”After what Meg Ryan did in that restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally … , they’ll have to leave this in,” says Parker. Neville’s wife, who’s stopped by the set to lend support, holds her head in her hands in mock embarrassment as her husband groans loudly for the camera. ”This is funny,” whispers a makeup artist standing nearby. ”But it’s strange.”