Skyscraper (1996): Sex & Drugs & Forward Rolls

Dave chats with PM Entertainment scripter Bill Applegate and learns all about the chaotic circumstances around the shooting of this Anna Nicole Smith picture.

Currently working as a producer for CNBC, Bill Applegate has been creating news channel content for the last two decades. However, back in his college days at the University of California in the early ‘90s, he was desperate to break into the movie business.

“Yeah, I always wanted to be in film,” recalls Applegate. “I came to Los Angeles when my father was transferred here. I wanted to go to film school, but I didn’t quite have the grades. The summer after my junior year at UCLA, I got a job as a production assistant on the Pauly Shore movie, Jury Duty (1995). I was fired soon after though, because Pauly Shore asked me if I wanted an autograph and I said no!”

Hey, you’re either a fan of Son in Law (1993) or you’re not – and thankfully for Applegate, his Shore snub happened to lead to a more worthwhile opportunity:

“A friend of my dad’s knew Joseph Merhi – they played tennis together, so I got a job as a second, second assistant director, which is basically a PA, on a bunch of PM movies. I had really wanted to be a screenwriter, and I had written a script which I brought to Joseph and he read it, liked it, but told me he didn’t want to make it. He did, though, say he’d hire me to write this other movie with T.J. Roberts, Tiger Heart (1996), so that’s how I got started. I didn’t go back for my senior year. I just dropped out and began working for them.”

“PM was hilarious. They gave us a sheet that said “five minutes of story, ten minutes of action, ten minutes of story, five minutes of action” – a template! So we tried to follow it. And with the Anna Nicole Smith movie, well, you could write a whole book on that. That was just a disaster.”

A creative disaster, perhaps, but in terms of commercial appeal, Merhi and his business partner Richard Pepin knew exactly what they were doing. Smith had risen to fame a couple of years earlier after appearing on the cover of Playboy magazine in March 1992, and in the wake of some high-profile work for Guess, her voluptuous figure was adorning GQ and Marie Claire by ’93.

Acting aspirations came to the fore but the silver screen spluttered for Smith, with a couple of minor roles in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994) that never really led to anything. So, when Messrs P. and M. came calling with the offer of a lead role in their next direct-to-video action extravaganza, To the Limit (1995), Smith decided that it might be the route into movies that she was looking for. However, by the time this sequel to one of PM’s more muted affairs, Da Vinci’s War (1993), went before the cameras in December 1994, Smith was in pretty bad shape. Six months prior, Smith had become America’s punchline when, at the age of twenty-six, she’d married the eighty-nine-year-old billionaire, J. Howard Marshall. The circus that ensued did little to put the already troubled blonde on an even keel, and her substance abuse began to increase.

SKYSCRAPER, her second picture for Pepin and Merhi, began shooting in August 1995 – a month that would prove pivotal in the life of the young actress. On the 4th, her husband of little over a year passed away at ninety. Smith, who was in New York at the time, reacted with convulsions and had to be hospitalised. Left bankrupt and penniless, she moved into a small apartment in the Valley with her son, Daniel [1], and Raymond Martino – the director behind the two films that she made for PM Entertainment.

Writing about the filmmaker in New York Magazine, Dan P. Lee described him as “twenty years older, earnest, hairy, and odd-looking. He found her scared, funny, and childlike—her continued use of pacifiers was endearing to him. He was, though, a stabilizing force during her relapse.” [2]

For Bill Applegate, this burgeoning romance certainly didn’t seem all that conducive to the filmmaking process.

“She was in the worst, drug-addled part of her life,” says Applegate, a hint of sorrow creeping into his voice. “She’d also go missing for an hour, and Martino would go missing for an hour. They’d send a PA off to go look for them and discover him going down on her in the trailer. In the middle of production! It was just ridiculous.”

Nevertheless, the remit from the producers was simple for both Applegate and his writing partner, Joseph John Barmettler: give us Die Hard (1988) but with Anna Nicole Smith.

“Cue the eye roll [laughs]. So, Joseph went off to come up with five ideas, and I went off to do the same. He ended up coming up with the one they liked, with her as the helicopter pilot, and so he got to write the script, but it wasn’t very good, so they gave it to me, and I came up with a Shakespeare spouting villain and all of that.”

On the face of it, any film that can boast a Bard-bellowing bad guy can’t be all bad, and the Germany-born Charles M. Huber certainly imbues the nefarious Fairfax with giddy relish. He’s holed up with his multinational crew of bad guys at the eighty-six floor Zitex building, as he attempts to seize a fourth and final suitcase embedded device that, when connected to the others, has the potential to “shift the balance of power in the world” [?]. Enter Smith’s Carrie Wink: the broody wife of LAPD cop Gordon (Richard Steinmetz) whose day job is a chopper jockey for Heliscort, a company that provides inter-skyscraper chopper travel for high-end clients. Needless to say, it’s Carrie that finds this valuable piece of tech thrust into her possession, and she’s left to guard it with her life, take on the terrorists, free the hostages, and save the day.

When Carrie’s ditzy Texan drawl responds to one of Fairfax’s Shakespeare quotes with, “Henry IV, right?”, you know it’s time to eschew any meaningful critical analysis and just bless Skyscraper for having the opportunity to exist. Cole S. McKay’s stunt work is predictably on point, and there are enough high-rise hijinks to punish anyone’s acrophobia. In terms of the PM canon, though, Skyscraper is a bottom shelf affair. Martino obviously had his mind on other things during the shoot, and the picture lacks cohesion, with the flashbacks that try to add a little depth to Carrie and Gordon’s relationship only stifling any forward momentum.

“It just didn’t make any sense,” sighs a regretful Applegate. “They clearly managed to change the script, and Merhi himself had to go and shoot all the absent pick-ups to make it in some way coherent. Smith fell into a coma at the end! This was all pre-TMZ, so no-one really found out about it, but she was blacked-out for three days through opiates. She was drunk the whole movie. Out of it. You can find the outtakes online, and you can tell that she’s just completely gone with the wind. We saw a screening of it anyway, and Joseph was that horrified that he took his name off it.”

“For me, I just though fuck it – it’s a movie.”

[1] Daniel features in Skyscraper as the kid riding The Shining (1980) trike. He would later die of an overdose in Hawaii at the age of twenty in September 2006. Smith herself passed the following February.
[2] Paw Paw & Lady Love by Dan P. Lee, New York Magazine, 3rd June 2011

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