April 16 was not a good day for director Bryan Singer. On his way to the Sherman Oaks, Calif., set of Apt Pupil, his first film since The Usual Suspects, he got a flat tire on the Pacific Coast Highway. He dragged himself through a long shooting day while suffering from the flu and didn’t take a break until 6 p.m. And when he sat down to dinner with screenwriter Brandon Boyce, a crew member whispered some very bad news in his ear: A 14-year-old extra named Devin St. Albin had filed a lawsuit claiming that the filmmakers had ordered him and other minors to strip for a scene that was shot in the showers of a school locker room.
Singer excused himself from the table, conferred with the producers, and decided to return to work. But a few hours later, after trying to film a technically difficult shot, he gave up. ”I’m about to die,” he said.
Two weeks earlier, on the morning of April 2, a dozen-odd extras had arrived at the gymnasium of Altadena’s Elliot Middle School to shoot a scene from Apt Pupil, the Stephen King adaptation starring Brad Renfro as a teenager obsessed with a Nazi war criminal (Ian McKellen). What actually happened after the extras entered the locker room has now become the subject of two lawsuits — two more boys are now supporting St. Albin’s claim — and the centerpiece of an ongoing argument about the rights and welfare of child actors.
According to St. Albin, a 17-year-old plaintiff named Ryan Glomboske, and Peter Gordon, the attorney for a third minor, 16-year-old David Stockdale, the boys — local high school athletes recruited by the production — were asked to bring bathrobes to the set to film a nightmare sequence in which shower stalls turn into gas chambers. While the parents of the minors sat in the gym, the extras — who ranged in age from adolescents to geriatrics — were led into a locker room and instructed to change into sheer peach-colored G-strings provided by the wardrobe department. ”Nobody really said anything, but we looked at each other. We were uncomfortable,” says St. Albin. ”You could hear everyone saying ‘What the heck is that?”’ Glomboske remembers. ”People were nervous.”
According to St. Albin and Glomboske (who is joining his suit), the extras, wearing their robes over the G-strings, were ushered past the parents into the shower-room set, where they were told to take off their bathrobes. Then, say St. Albin and Glomboske, they were asked by assistant directors Fernando Altschul and Tom DeSantos to remove their G-strings.
”I looked around for help, for someone to say, ‘There are minors here,”’ says St. Albin. ”I raised my hand and said I wasn’t comfortable. The assistant director looked very upset and said, ‘I guess we can switch you with this other kid.’ They gave me a towel to put on over the G-string” and moved him out of clear sight, next to the lockers.
Glomboske says that he moved closer to a shower head to shield himself but, unlike the other extras, did not remove his G-string. After filming the scene, Glomboske says he was approached by a frustrated assistant director, who asked him why he hadn’t undressed. ”I said I was a minor,” says Glomboske, who asserts that after an informal conference between crew members about what one of them called ”a minor problem,” he was assured that it was not illegal for him to be filmed nude.
But Glomboske says legalities weren’t foremost on his mind at the moment he was asked to unclothe. “If they had taken me aside, it would have been one thing,” says Glomboske. But “they got frustrated and came back and asked me in front of everyone if I minded taking it off. I felt like I would have been a wuss if I hadn’t.” All three teenagers are claiming trauma from the experience, charging the filmmakers with, among other things, infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and invasion of privacy.
The lawsuits are only the latest in a series of mishaps involved in the making of Apt Pupil — which, in 13 years of development, had already lost two possible older leading men to death (James Mason and Richard Burton) and a younger costar (Ricky Schroder) to adulthood, when filming was delayed due to lack of funds. But last September, when Apt Pupil was picked up by Phoenix Pictures, a new production company headed by ex-TriStar head Mike Medavoy, its troubles seemed over. Now a new set of problems may just be beginning: Whether or not the accusations are proved, they can be damaging to a movie. Several years ago in a lawsuit brought against the filmmakers of a Warner Bros. movie called War of the Buttons, a teenager claimed that he was filmed naked, while the filmmakers insisted he was in a body stocking. The case was ultimately settled; the film itself never received a wide U.S. release.
On April 17, Phoenix Pictures attorney Lindsey Bayman told Entertainment Weekly that after “a thorough investigation, including speaking to everybody who should be spoken to… [we are] completely convinced there was no wrongdoing.” She says that St. Albin’s and Glomboske‘s lawyer, Martin Rub, informed her “that if we didn’t respond in a manner that satisfied his clients, he would go to the media and he would sue us. We apparently didn’t respond in a manner that satisfied his clients.”
In a letter sent to Rub dated April 14, written on Phoenix letterhead and apparently signed by Bayman, the studio not only denied responsibility but wrote “…any statements made publicly containing allegations for which there is no basis in fact are actionable… Phoenix will take all steps necessary to preserve its reputation.” Since Glomboske and Stockdale have come forward, Phoenix Pictures has refused to comment any further, and will not confirm or deny any details of St. Albin’s account.
This is not Apt Pupil‘s first brush with trouble involving minors on the set. According to Wesley Staples, president of Local 884, the union that represents on-set teachers, one of the film’s on-set instructors, Maureen Estes (who is named in both St. Albin’s and Stockdale’s lawsuits), filed a report with the California department of labor earlier this year, stating that on a specific day, minors on the set were made to work impermissibly long hours. (In California, child-welfare rules governing young actors are overseen by the state labor department, and on-set teachers double as child-welfare representatives.)
“Everyone’s ducking for cover,” says Paul Petersen, a former child actor who is now an advocate for child actors’ rights as president of A Minor Consideration. Petersen says he isn’t surprised by St. Albin’s story. “I know how this happens,” he says. “It’s a complete and total breakdown of the protections Hollywood pretends it accords children. These are people who should know better.”
In fact, although Phoenix Pictures won’t comment, the filmmakers may have been under the impression that they were conditionally allowed to film the minors unclothed. Staples says that he has seen an official approval from an employee at the California department of labor, which authorized the filmmakers to film the teenagers nude that day, provided they were shown only from behind. (The department of labor could not be reached for comment.) Petersen says that even if the note exists, the department has no right to waive that law. And according to Rub, the waiver signed by Glomboske‘s parents contained no mention of nudity.
Who is responsible — and exactly what happened — has yet to be determined. Whether the fault lies in parents overeager to have their children in the spotlight or a crew anxious to finish filming, it is adults who will ultimately be held responsible. But for now, with their silence, the filmmakers are shouldering the blame. Says St. Albin, “You felt like the adults knew what they were doing, and you had to do it.”
—Additional reporting by Dave Karger