Twist On A Tryst: Kiss of a Stranger (1998)

Dave hits up Sam Irvin to learn about his enjoyable one-night stand thriller.

“I had written it with Diana Ross in mind as the Mom and Mick Jagger as the rock n’roller Dad, with a mixed race Nova in the Mariel Hemingway role. That was where I was headed! But reality set in when we got down to casting.”

Shot over the course of twelve days on the tightest of budgets, it’s fair to say that KISS OF A STRANGER (1998) didn’t perhaps live up to the original vision of writer-director Sam Irvin. Irrespective of its challenges, though, this rare self-penned outing from the filmmaker is a welcome medley of melodramatic thrills and media savvy wit.

“Why do all the handsome men in LA have to be gay?” protests Nova Clarke (Mariel Hemingway), a gossip columnist for the local TV station, before – as luck would have it – the chiselled and very heterosexual frame of Nathan Leigh (Matt Battaglia) walks into her life. However, when something seems too good to be true, it usually is – and before Nova can make the bed the morning after her one-night stand, Nathan is gone, leaving her pregnant and keen to uncover the real identity of this mysterious stranger.

“I think I wrote it on spec, then showed it to Paul Colichman. They did a lot of movies in Canada so for a while I was just going to write it, as they had to use either a Canadian director or a Canadian writer. Thank God the director who was attached to the film got a more lucrative offer, so he backed out. And then it was a charmed scenario where the production was moved to L.A. which enabled me to direct it.”

Despite its propensity for cliché, and a twist or two that pummels the boundaries of plausibility, it would be a heartless film lover not to get a modicum of pleasure from Irvin’s frothy thriller. At the heart of it lies the irrepressible pairing of Nova and her workmate/gay best friend, Brian (Jeff Cesario). They have a chemistry that’s hard to fault, with Cesario in-particular revelling in a succession of sassy one-liners. The addition of Dyan Cannon as Nova’s songstress mother [1] and David Carradine as her womanising, drug-addled father supplies a little glitter-splashed fabric to the gloss.

The idea for the script was actually based on an event that Irvin himself experienced, as he recalls:

“I haven’t talked about this film much, but it was inspired by a real-life situation where I was Mariel Hemingway on a one-night stand, and a guy gave me his phone number and told me he was working on a Broadway show in the wig department. He invited me to the theatre – but he wasn’t there, and they hadn’t heard of him at the stage door. I called the number he gave me, but it didn’t exist, and nor did his address. I never saw him again and I never understood why all the deceit. It gnawed at me for years, and every time I went to the bar where I met him it just haunted me. So when it came to ideas for a script, that’s where it came from. The first third is pretty much scene for scene what happened to me, while the rest is just some fanciful thinking and backstory.”

Kiss of a Stranger boasts a bewildering hybrid of themes, and there’s the temptation to suggest that it’s a blend that shouldn’t succeed. Shifting from wisecracks to pitch black in terms of tone, the film builds to a gripping crescendo before its coda brings an unapologetic dip into sentimentality.

Produced by the aforementioned Colichman’s Regent Entertainment, Kiss of a Stranger made an unlikely – and exclusive – theatrical appearance in Dallas in November ’98 at the behest of one of its backers, prior to finding a regular home on cable TV. Bizarrely, it took a full six years for any home media release to surface. The film finally debuted on U.S. DVD in May ’04 – but territories like the U.K. never got to experience its admirable singularity.

Although Irvin looks back at this chapter of his long career with great fondness, there’s another film from the same era which tends to dominate conversation about his work, and it even impacted on Kiss of a Stranger:

“While we were in pre-production, I overheard Paul in the corridor mention a book called Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. I leaped up out of my desk and ran out and demanded to know what he was talking about [laughs]. He said they’d just got a script from some guy called Bill Condon who’d adapted it. Now I’d wanted to option that book, and I’d been desperate to direct it. I called Bill, said good luck with it and offered my services if there was ANYTHING he wanted me to do. Anyway, I asked if he’d considered Ian McKellen and Bill said that that’s exactly who he wanted for it! Flash-forward a year later, and he’s approached by Regent Entertainment to make it. I said to Paul that he HAD to do it, and, again, I’d do absolutely anything on the movie – so I ended up an executive producer. My film got postponed a bit because they were putting so many resources into it – but Kiss of a Stranger started shooting the week after Gods and Monsters (1998) wrapped.” [2]

[1] Miming to the excellent Deborah Holland, who was, of course, a founding member of Stewart Copeland’s Animal Logic.
[2] Gods and Monsters wrapped in December 1997.

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