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It may be fiction, but Be Cool could well begin with a black screen on which is written: This is based on the cool version of truth. The story is invented, but the characters are as real as a writer can make them, thanks to novelist Elmore Leonard. Cast and crew, led by John Travolta, talk about the making of the film.

As he stands pointing a gun at a potential victim, Sin Russell, played by the inimitable Cedric the Entertainer, quips: “And don’t tell me to be cool. I AM cool.” That line applies to the whole movie. Elmore Leonard, the writer with the deepest treasure chest of quotable cool lines, has been enormously generous with them throughout the book from which this screenplay is fashioned. What makes his cool lines work so well is that they’re all built on truths; observed weirdness of characters. Reality. Yes, if you like, this is a reality movie, even if it isn’t how reality television is made.

This is reality in the writing sense: good writers tell truths about the human condition, and we know they are truths because we instantly recognise them. Of course a Leonard’s-eye-view of this world’s wild reality is pumped up and supercharged with the grittier aspects of personality and behaviour….

It’s a high-octane reality with which Elmore Leonard is familiar: with Get Shorty he sharpened his pen on characters like Chili Palmer and in Be Cool he’s escalated his creative processes to deliver characters like Vince Vaughn’s Raji, Uma Thurman’s Edie, and The Rock’s gay Elliott, for starters. Here’s how the story goes:

"a bit of hilarious self parody"

Streetwise Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is a bit tired of the movie business, and sees his chance to get into the music business when he’s introduced - the last act of rogue music exec Athens (John Wood) - to aspiring young singer Linda Moon (Christina Milian). Together with the widow who inherits the music label, Edie (Uma Thurman), Chili has to first salvage Linda’s 5-year contract from the ferocious grip of small time promoter Nicki Carr (Harvey Keitel) and his slimy partner in crime, Raji (Vince Vaughn), whose gay body guard Elliot (The Rock) is the weak link in their chain as he’ll do anything to get an acting gig. Chili’s problems compound when Sin Russell (Cedric the Entertainer) turns up with his heavies at Edie’s office demanding $300 K owed to them by Edie’s deceased ex. With no money to produce Linda’s record, the only thing that could make things worse for Chili and Co is hit men from the Russian mafia …

And then there’s Aerowsmith’s Steve Tyler, who plays himself, and delivers an iconic performance crowned by a duet in concert with the film’s rising star Linda Moon, sung by Christina Milian. But Tyler also gets to do a bit of hilarious self parody. 

It’s a film that will appeal to gangsters, rappers, musicians, singers, blacks, whites, short people, tall people, make up artists, record producers, policemen, dancers, music clip producers – and ‘shylocks’ like Chili Plamer. Whether or not Elmore Leonard actually researched the music business, he has taken an unapologetically bleak view of its collective morality. Vanity, greed, ambition, sex or revenge drive all the characters – which doesn’t seem too far from the reality we find in our daily newspapers – and not just about the music business. 

For what you see on the screen begins on the page and Leonard took a while to feel confident he could write a sequel to Get Shorty. “But when I thought about it, and about John Travolta as Chili Palmer. Because he was so good in Get Shorty,” says Leonard, “it wasn’t difficult to see him in the role again. I also had firmly in my mind that it was a sequel – and a sequel has to be better than the original – so I had to think of another idea and another arena in which to set the story. I thought Chili, still in the motion picture business, would now be looking for something fresh. I decided he could find his way into the music business, and suddenly there was so much good material, perhaps because it’s a rougher business than the movies and there are many more scoundrels in it.”

"I flipped over it"

Once the novel was completed, screenwriter Peter Steinfeld was brought on to turn the story into a screenplay; he first heard of Be Cool from his wife, who is also his agent. “I read the book in about three hours and I flipped over it. Then I had to go to Jersey Films and pitch myself to producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, and Stacey Sher. One of the things I do when rehearsing a pitch as I’m driving is that I talk out loud in the car by myself. I’m driving through Beverly Hills, and as I stop at a light I’m in the car talking to myself and I realize the guy in the car to my left is staring at me. I look over in mid-pitch, and it turns out it’s Delroy Lindo, who played Bo Catlett in Get Shorty. I actually had a copy of the books Get Shorty and Be Cool in the seat next to me, so I grabbed Get Shorty and held it up, and he gave me the thumbs up. Right then I thought, ‘This is a sign. This was meant to be.‘” 

Leonard’s writing style makes the reader feel as if it’s already a movie because his dialogue is so crisp and well paced. “Adapting Leonard is sort of a blessing and a curse,” says Steinfeld, “because his writing is so cinematic and tight. He’s like the Shakespeare of crime fiction. He cuts right to the heart of a situation. The most terrifying thing was sending him the first draft of the script, but when the phone rang, he said, ‘Peter, this is Elmore Leonard.’ I said, ‘Mr. Leonard, how are you? It’s a pleasure to talk to you.’ And he said, ‘I loved it, loved the script.’ He was so supportive.”

Director F. Gary Gray signed on partly because he’s a big fan of two other films made from Leonard’s novels: Get Shorty and Out of Sight. Gray loves the world Leonard creates and how the attention paid to detail in his books translates so well to film.

Working with John Travolta was an experience for director Gray. “When you work with someone who’s doing a character for the first time, it takes some time to kind of mould it,” Gray says. “You can find yourself halfway though the shoot before it clicks.” He knew this time would be different. “The first day of shooting,” he continues, “John stepped on the set and instantly became Chili Palmer. That’s what I love about him. He’s extremely prepared. He totally understands his character. I wasn’t sure after ten years how long it would take John to jump back into it, but it clicked immediately.”

"totally cool"

Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed Get Shorty, commented recently that when John Travolta first took the role of Chili Palmer, he wanted to play him as a “street James Bond.” When asked about that observation, Travolta says, “Chili’s a gangster, but he has an image of himself as a much cooler gangster, more along the lines of James Bond. And one of my favourite screen idols was Sean Connery, in particular as Bond, so I just took that as inspiration for my own take on Chili Palmer.”

Without a doubt, Chili Palmer is totally cool; he’s confident, nothing fazes him, and he doesn’t get flustered. But unlike a typical shylock, Chili has a distinct morality – he’s a gentleman’s gangster. Is Chili too moral for the cutthroat movie and music industries? “Morality is subjective,” says Travolta. “I think Chili has a sense of fairness and a sense of justice. His approach to both may be a bit unorthodox, but he has an innate sense of those qualities, and at the end of the day Chili Palmer is a good guy.

“Chili always takes advantage of an opportunity, giving two things consideration: is it appropriate to take advantage, and is it fair and just? He’s just clever that way. Chili never really worries about anything. He’s a created character that’s based on confidence, and even if he’s not particular confident in a certain instance, you’d never know it. He’s always analysing how to get in and out of situations in a very cool way.”

Travolta was thrilled Uma Thurman chose to accept the role of Edie Athens. “Uma and I are very comfortable together on screen,” he says, “and in Be Cool we’re playing very different characters than we played in Pulp Fiction. In Pulp Fiction we were basically playing two people that were hell-bent for death, and in Be Cool we’re playing two people that are cool and rugged, cool-bent for life.”

When asked whether he and Uma would return to the dance floor together for a scene in Be Cool, “I said it would have to be something Chili would feel good about dancing to. Chili would dance to something with a Brazilian sound or a Latin rhythm or something like that. He’d probably do a fox trot, the cha-cha, a samba, a mambo – something with which he could keep his Frank Sinatra-era, low-key, New York-style cool. The Black Eyed Peas had just done a brilliant rap version of a Joabim song from 1962 called ‘Sexy,’ and it’s exactly what I would have wanted to dance to.”

"incredibly funny and enjoyable"

As for Uma Thurman, she found the script “incredibly funny and enjoyable,” she says, “but the main initial hook was to team up with John again. We had such a great time 10 years ago, and when I read through the dance scene I felt liked I’d been there before. And to dance with John Travolta is just so much fun. John is the best partner that you could get to dance with in the whole world,” 

Thurman loves the characters in the film and watching them interact. “What Elmore Leonard is famous for are his bold characters and incredibly sharp dialogue,” she says. “It’s really fun; it’s not mushy or gray. It’s colorful and bold and gives each actor something really unique to do.”

Of the other actors, Travolta also really got a kick out of The Rock’s character, Elliot. “In this film The Rock shows the sense of humor he has,” says Travolta, “and he shows his ability to act by taking on a role that’s very unique. He has so many wonderful, incongruous moments. One of the reasons I took this movie was because of a certain scene he’s in. To see The Rock, dead serious, doing a two-character scene about cheerleaders from Bring It On as a monologue – the intrinsic comedy in that scene is flawless. That’s as good as it gets.”

To film the scene in which Chili and Edie head to a Lakers game to enlist Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler into their scheme to save their record label, Travolta enjoyed watching the crowd’s reaction. “We filmed at an actual Lakers game at the Staples Center, and the people saw Uma and I come in and out several times. You could tell they were wondering why we kept coming in and out, sitting down to talk to Steven Tyler in exactly the same way. They thought it was real life,” he laughs. “Steven was a natural, and it was funny that the crowd didn’t get that we were making a movie.”

There are many seasoned performers in the film, but Christina Milian is relatively new to the screen. Travolta says, “Christina is truly gifted, not only as a singer and performer but she’s also got acting chops. She’s a natural; Christina has it all. I’m very, very proud of her in this movie.”

"He just saw us as a master chess game"

Of Gray, Travolta says, “Gary has more fun than I’ve ever seen any director have. He just saw us as a master chess game and he was putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together. I got a kick out of watching him enjoy this. He definitely had a vision in mind for the movie, and it’s very comforting as an actor. He also left one take of a scene for us to do what we wanted to do, or if we wanted to improvise, we’d improvise. When you improvise a take, you’re going to get a little bit more life in it because actors feel they are creating something, and Gary embraced that process.” 

As Raji, Vince Vaughn got to exercise his comic muscles. He relished stepping into Raji’s poser shoes. “As an actor, it’s more interesting to play characters that are further off centre,” Vaughn says. “Raji is very unique in his own way. He’s a guy who takes on a whole sort of hip-hop vernacular and dress as a sort of identity. I always saw Raji as someone who was not very tough and very insecure who’s created a reality for himself that he felt safe within.”

Published March 10, 2005

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