One day last December, Julie Salamon was sorting through piles of old plastic boxes in a storage unit in Lower Manhattan. Salamon, 68, is a self-described journalist, author and pack rat. The boxes were accidental galleries in the Museum of a Lifetime’s Work, filled with relics – notebooks, newspaper clippings, photos and cassettes – accumulated for the dozen books Salamon has published since 1988.
Salamon had come to pick up a box containing elements from her second book, “The Devil’s Candy”, published in 1991. She had recently agreed to adapt the book – a famous tale of the making of the infamous box office flop “The Bonfire of the Vanities, ”based on Tom Wolfe’s radical social satire of 1980s New York – for the second season of“ The Plot Thickens, ”a podcast on Hollywood history from Turner Classic Movies.
Salamon hoped to find a wealth of mini cassettes, recorded on set throughout the production of the film. The tapes’ audio contained unusually candid interviews with director Brian De Palma, his crew and the film’s stars – Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith and Morgan Freeman – and would be a crucial part of the podcast.
But when Salamon finally found the “Devil’s Candy” box, the tapes weren’t there. Distraught, she returned to her apartment in SoHo and resumed her research. It was there, a few frantic days later, that she found several zippered freezer bags full of mini cassettes on the back of a large home office cabinet. The bags had not been opened for 30 years.
Making the podcast, which recently ended its seven-episode series, was a career-ending twist for Salamon, giving him the rare opportunity to revisit the story of a lifetime three decades later. But, as the author knew better than anyone, adaptations are never straightforward – at least not when it comes to “The Bonfire of Vanities.”
“Putting this podcast together gave me additional appreciation of Brian’s dilemma,” Salamon said. “At first you have no idea what you’re doing, but then you just start doing it.”
When it hit shelves in 1991, “The Devil’s Candy” stunned Hollywood. He painted a vivid and well-documented portrait of an industry few outsiders had seen up close. (Or would see today – armies of studio and personal publicists keep journalists from getting too close.) Salamon, then a film critic for the Wall Street Journal (she later worked for the New York Times), s ‘was befriended De Palma, who by the late 1980s had made hits like “Carrie”, “Scarface” and “The Untouchables” but was in some kind of career slump. With her participation, her book has portrayed the world of big-budget studio filmmaking as a high-stakes battle, in which three mercurial factions – artists, rulers, and audiences – are still at odds with each other. others.
At the center of the story was what remains one of the most notorious train wrecks in cinema history. “The Bonfire of Vanities,” written by Wolfe, was a kaleidoscopic tale of the greed and cynicism of the “Me decade,” filled with characters that are easy to hate and hard to turn away. The book became an instant bestseller and media sensation in 1987, making it inevitable that someone would try to make a movie of it. But its sharp edges did not survive Hollywood. Warner Bros. preemptively neutralized the central figure in the story, a slippery and self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe” bond trader named Sherman McCoy, by casting Hanks, recently of “Big”. His memorable and ruthless ending also took the ax. In its place was a made-up scene, in which Freeman, playing the role of a judge, delivers a jarring moral sermon.
Behind the scenes, the project was plagued from the start. Her biggest initial cheerleader, a powerful producer named Peter Guber, left the studio before production began. This paved the way for a showdown between De Palma, a withdrawn and demanding visionary, and executives at Warner Bros., who were keen to protect an inflated $ 50 million investment. De Palma, who was not interested in surveillance, excluded executives from key aspects of production. Executives fought back – at one point they threatened to hold him personally responsible for the cost overruns.
No one who worked on the film – not even Salamon, who observed the shoot and attended the meetings – recognized it as a creative failure until it was screened for a test audience. By then it was too late. Critics trashed “Bonfire” – “rude, not funny” and “extremely uneven,” this newspaper said – and moviegoers shunned it. It grossed less than $ 16 million at the box office.
The podcast version of “The Devil’s Candy” maintains the basic narrative of the book but adds new layers. The most powerful is the audio, rescued from Salamon’s freezer bags. Throughout the series, retrospective storytelling gives way to contemporary recordings that capture events as they happened. The recordings also transform written characters into living, breathing people. Everything you need to know about the particular breed of difficult movie star Bruce Willis was in 1990 – ubiquitous bodyguard, rude to assistants – is there in the arrogant tone he uses in his interviews with Salamon.
“For me, the bands really add a richness that wasn’t possible otherwise,” said Salamon. “I like to think I’m not a bad writer, but there’s no way to write something as emotional as hearing someone tell their story.”
Salamon adapted “The Devil’s Candy” in close partnership with narrative podcast company Campside Media, which this season co-produced “The Plot Thickens” with TCM. She needed to break down her 420-page book into seven 40-minute podcast episodes.
Campside producer Natalia Winkelman, 28 (and freelance film critic for The Times), was something of a doula and confidante to Salamon, guiding her through the months-long process of translating her reports into podcast scripts. Although Salamon’s writing career spanned fiction, memoir, and children’s literature, she had no writing experience for the ear, a distinct form with unique qualities and constraints.
“Clauses don’t work that well in audio, you have to be more direct and conversational,” Winkelman said. “I think there was a bit of a learning curve for Julie at first, but once we both got into the recording studio things started to flow really quickly. If I gave it a rating … It sounds a little read–Yes – she would come back with something much better than I could have found.
Salamon also wanted to build on the book by adding new reports and interviews. Many of the podcast’s most emotionally compelling moments stem from the transitions between yesterday and today, recording and memory. One of the many indelible figures in the book that Salamon re-interviews is Eric Schwab, a second-unit director on “Bonfire” and De Palma’s protégé, who was set for a glowing career before the film’s bombing.
“So many of the people who worked on the film were at a crossroads in their careers,” said Angela Carone, the director of podcasts at TCM who has cropped the season with Salamon. “We can tell their full stories on the podcast in a way that isn’t in the book.”
Not everyone who cooperated with the book has returned for the podcast. None of the stars in the film have sat down for further interviews (TCM has said the recordings are legally owned by Salamon and that he has notified those whose voices are used in the series). Neither does De Palma, although Salamon said the two remain good friends. (Through a representative, the director and stars also declined to speak for this story.)
In the absence of the stars, the podcast becomes more systemic in its outlook. It shows us the idealistic and overworked wrestlers – the assistant who dreams of becoming a producer, the spotter drinking aspirin for breakfast – who achieve small victories amid the chaos and terror of the film set.
Some of what Salamon documented 30 years ago looks different through a modern lens. The fifth episode focuses on several women who invariably have more precarious positions in the film than those of their male peers. In this episode, a present-day Aimee Morris – who was a 22-year-old production assistant on “Bonfire” – angrily remembers filming a scene that does not appear in the novel with actress Beth. Broderick. In the scene, Broderick’s character photocopies his bare crotch; The shoot forced Broderick, who was then De Palma’s girlfriend, to spend nine hours on several occasions removing his underwear and getting on and off a Xerox machine.
“It just made me sick,” Morris says in the episode. The scene “had nothing to do with anything. It’s just disgusting. It’s just misogynistic.
Salamon, who critically wrote the Xerox scene in his book, said revisiting it with Morris allowed him to frame the anecdote more precisely this time around.
“It just made me realize how the trash women came to accept back then that we rightly won’t do this anymore,” she said.
For Salamon, working on the podcast has been a strange and moving experience, forcing him to reflect not only on his characters’ journeys, but his own as well.
When she first thought about what would become “The Devil’s Candy” in 1989, she was a frustrated novelist working full time at the Journal while carrying her first child. The book became an instant classic of the genre (it is still regularly taught in film schools) and changed the trajectory of his life.
“Hearing those voices brought me back to that time,” said Salamon, describing what it was like to listen to the tapes for the first time. “I was starting a new life and becoming a young mother and making the transition to a new profession that I loved. It was overwhelming. I was on an adventure.