Shooting and Scoring: This film puts Leonardo DiCaprio front and center
In the bowels of a burned-out basement, a skinny kid is nodding off on a concrete step, his head lolling as if his neck were made of Jell-O. Suddenly, the door bangs open, and a prostitute stumbles in and careens over to his flaccid body. Yanking his head up by the hair, she leans into his face and, in a whiny voice, begs, ”Jim-my, got any drugs?” But the kid can’t hear her; the foamy white drool hanging from his slack mouth and the glazed-over, ecstatic expression on his face show he’s halfway to heaven.
”Cut! Let’s go again,” says the director, and with that, the junkie comes back to life as Leonardo DiCaprio. ”At least I have a germ-free mouth,” he says, cockily squirting a stream of spit, enhanced by hydrogen peroxide, from between his front teeth. The peroxide bottle and the bright yellow boxes of baking soda (heroin’s stand-in) are among the few reminders that this grim Harlem location is actually headquarters for The Basketball Diaries. But if there’s a watchword on the set of the gritty film drama based on Jim Carroll’s heroin-laced memoirs of growing up on Manhattan’s mean streets, it’s real.
The subject matter is so dark, in fact, that the $4.5 million film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opened nationally last weekend, took 17 years to jump from page to screen. ”I wish I was there shooting documentary footage of Jim Carroll when he was young, because that’s the closest to what I’m trying to do,” says 30-year-old Scott Kalvert, a first-time feature director best known for his Marky Mark and Guns N’ Roses music videos.
Whether kids are ready for scenes this ”real” or not, Diaries features an actor they want to see: 20-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio. Although none of his films (which include This Boy’s Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and The Quick and the Dead) have been commercial hits, DiCaprio’s chameleonic talent and waifish good looks have Hollywood heralding him as the hottest young actor in twentydom. ”It’s so unexpected,” he says a bit uncomfortably. ”Most of the time I’m working and not visible to the public, so I don’t know how people react to me. I know my friends and family are going to be the same, but all the acquaintances might react differently. Who knows? It’s something I’m going to have to deal with later, I suppose.”
A year ago, when Diaries was in production near a high school in lower Manhattan, Leo fever was already epidemic. ”By the end of the day, we’d have hundreds of girls looking for Leo and Marky Mark, peeking in our trailers. I would expect that for Marky, but for me it was bizarre,” says DiCaprio, who hung out with the students to sabotage his own mystique. ”I would ask them questions about themselves,” he explains. ”When they realize that you’re just like anyone else, they don’t care about you anymore. They’re like, ‘Where’s Marky Mark?’ ”
For his part, Mark Wahlberg, the once but probably not future Marky Mark, seems like he’s never met a glance he didn’t like. ”Hey, Shpielberg!” Wahlberg, 23, yells over to Kalvert, a slight figure in a baseball cap, who looks more like a young cast member than the man at the helm. Apparently Kalvert is treated that way, too. ”I call him ‘Shpielberg’ because he’s always like, ‘Do your little shpiel,’ ” explains the former Calvin Klein model. ”And also because there was this big thing about Spielberg never winning an Oscar [before Schindler’s List], and I’m just like, ‘Scott, you’re never winning an Oscar!’ ”