Behind the scenes of ''Black and White'' -- James Toback's experimental film involves Robert Downey Jr., Brooke Shields, and Claudia Schiffer
Rappers and models mingle, cell phones and pagers buzz, and except for the camera half visible through a cigarette and marijuana smoke haze, it’s hard to tell that a movie is being shot here on location at Manhattan’s Lot 61. And yet a little more vérité is in order: Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan tells director James Toback that the club scene won’t be believable unless someone ”starts some ruckus.” Without stunt doubles or rehearsal, the director informs a white-as-a-sheet producer that he wants to improvise a brawl on the spot, and suggestions that the Screen Actors Guild won’t approve are dismissed with a wave of Toback’s hand. The scene is done without injury, but the day’s shooting wraps minutes before Toback and crew are bounced by fed-up club owners.
Just another day on the set of Black and White, one of the most bizarre films to go into production this or any year. Set for release in mid-1999, the racially charged drama is being shot not only in a sometimes smoky working environment but also entirely without a script, with actors improvising their dialogue. If that’s not surprising enough, there’s the cast itself: Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Mike Tyson, Brooke Shields, hip-hop impresario Power, Elijah Wood, Knicks guard Allan Houston, Bijou Phillips, Marla Maples, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Claudia Schiffer — all of whom have signed on for next to nothing to work with Toback. ”Jim doesn’t even act like he knows where we’re from,” explains Power, rolling a blunt while a shot’s being set up. ”He just puts us in a situation and lets us carry it.”
The risky film is an odd gamble for Toback, whose last movie was this year’s critically acclaimed relationship drama Two Girls and a Guy. Also starring Downey and being rereleased for Oscar consideration this month in L.A. and New York, Two Girls marked a turning point for Toback, who sat dormant after writing 1991’s Bugsy, working on a series of projects that never got made, and whose well-publicized bad-boy reputation overshadowed his camera work.
For the follow-up to his comeback, Toback got $1.6 million from Palm Pictures to make Black and White, about a bunch of rich Manhattan teens obsessed with Harlem hip-hop culture. Then Toback put together his eclectically eccentric cast — and let them run free. ”To all these wild people I just said, ‘Don’t ask me what to do,”’ he says. ”’I’ll tell you if you’re not being interesting.’ I figured that I could write the script in the editing room anyway.”
Back on the set, things are getting more interesting all the time (though Downey and Toback don’t inhale; Toback says he’s been straight for years and Downey is regularly and randomly tested for drugs). Between shots, Phillips changes clothes in front of the troops. Topless, she shouts and laughs that ”Jim Toback has the smallest d—” she’s ever seen. ”There were a lot of things that happened that were nonprofessional and continued to happen,” says Shields, who filmed Black and White while on hiatus from NBC’s Suddenly Susan. ”It was pure decadence. But you can’t be in a situation like that and fight it.”
Toback’s producers certianly aren’t fighting it. Palm allowed Toback to dip into his postproduction budget while shooting and already has plans to take the film to Cannes. Others are less confident, but nevertheless fascinated by the curious working environment. ”I’ve never been so basically uncomfortable,” says Shields. ”You never, ever knew what was going to happen. If [the movie] is a disaster, it’s at least going to be an interesting disaster.”