THE CELL: Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D'Onofrio and Vince Vaughn -

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THE CELL: Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D'Onofrio and Vince Vaughn

Inside the special-effects laden psychological thriller

By Edward Gross     August 17, 2000

If Silence of the Lambs had a science fiction twist to it, the end result probably would have bared more than a little similarity to The Cell, the new psychological thriller starring Jennifer Lopez and helmed by commercial director Tarsem.

In The Cell, serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) acquires his victims (usually young females) and brings them out to a rural, abandoned farmhouse that he has converted into his own personal torture chamber. Within the farmhouse is a large glass-encased chamber in which he drowns women before performing horrible ritualistic atrocities on their bodies.

The story is set in motion when the FBI, led by agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), closes in on Stargher, who suddenly undergoes a seizure that renders him comatose. This would seemingly be the end of the problem, except for the fact that the FBI doesn't know where his latest--and presumed still living--victim is hidden. This sets the stage for empathic child therapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) to be called in for a very specific purpose. It seems that Deane has been able to use her abilities, combined with advanced technology, to enter the minds of troubled children to reach them when no one, or nothing else, can. In this case, she enters Stargher's mind in the hopes of finding the location of his latest victim, but instead finds herself trying to survive the chaos that exists within his psychotic mind.

The script, which is extremely reminiscent of an episode of the short-lived television series, Sleepwalkers, was written by Mark Protosevich (who has also written the proposed I Am Legend film), and was transformed into a nearly continuous surreal vision by Tarsem.

Lopez, who has had her share of hits (Selena, Out of Sight) and misses (The Money Train, Anaconda) at the box-office, and who surprised virtually everyone by becoming a genuine singing sensation, actually read The Cell script when she was first starting out. Years later, thanks to her success, she had the opportunity to read a number of scripts at different studios and came across it again.

'When I first read it,' she explains, 'it was more like a Silence of the Lambs, and that's how it read. But, you know, there was more artistic license to take the material in different places during the dream sequences. That was going to be up to the director. So when Tarsem came on, he started showing me the visual references that he had. I was like, 'Wow, this is going to be freaky,' but I didn't shy away from that. I felt like that was part of the story. But I don't feel like that was the whole story, and I don't feel that way at the end of the day when I watch the movie.'

Vaughn, who burst onto the scene with Swingers and has starred in a number of diverse roles, including Norman Bates and 'Mother' in the Psycho remake, admits that he, too, wasn't exactly drawn to the project because of the script or the character he was asked to play.

'Tarsem and what he wanted to do visually was so different that, in a way, it was like being in a big art house film,' explains Vaughn. 'You get so used to special effects and how they're done, but these are so different that you're not really conditioned to something like this. Truth be told, it wasn't really the script that interested me. It was seeing Tarsem's reel and what he planned on doing in this film. This movie isn't really a linear, narrative story in a traditional way. It makes more sense as a visual movie than it does as a linear film. For an actor, at least for myself, there's a lot of filling in background for yourself just so that you can justify or understand why you're in a particular scene or what's going on, because it isn't being explained.'

D'Onofrio, whose films include Men in Black, The 13th Floor, The Newton Boys and Full Metal Jacket (in which he played 'Private Pyle'), signed on as Stargher, though he admits he was a bit hesitant to take on the role. 'When I first heard about the film,' he reflects, 'I didn't think it would be that interesting to do another film about a killer. But then I met Tarsem. We had some great conversations and I was intrigued by his approach and what he was going to try and get away with. In our conversations, I found that Stargher has a moral foundation that is much different than ours. There is a normal side of him that Catherine can relate to, but then there is the vicious, horrible side to the character brought upon by his upbringing. And that harsh side is all about sexual disorder, death and power.'

Portraying the character's actions in the real world and his inner mind are the most intense images of the film, and the actor believes that those images should have been even more powerful. At the same time he recognizes that there was no way they could have gone any further than they did.

'There's only a certain amount you can do,' says D'Onofrio. 'You're never going to be able to see a movie where you can truly show or truly explain what happens in situations like those that are portrayed. Even the psychology of a person from childhood to adulthood, and the evolution of the psychology to have that person turn into the type of person he becomes, is something you could never truly show. That alone is too explicit and too harsh. Or the suggestion of what is done to children, which we hint on.

'You could never film that with a child anyway. It's against the law and who would let their child go through such a horrible scene for a movie? Fuck, we're not changing the world, we're telling a story. I do think that we went as far as we could go psychologically without making shit up to explain what might happen inside somebody's head, or what might lead somebody to be the way that they are. The other problem is that we only have a couple of hours to tell the story.'

Determined to have the characters be as realistic as they could, all three leads spent a great deal of time in research. Vaughn actually spoke to FBI Profilers--those agents, like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, who come to understand the killer before they capture him/her--and filled in the blanks with his imagination. Lopez, for her part, actually went to see a therapist.

'It was really interesting,' says Lopez. 'I had gone there and I didn't tell her that I was working on a movie or anything. I just started telling her about a problem that I thought I had pretty much figured out, and she was like, 'No, that's wrong.' It was actually kind of funny, but I learned something.

'I look at Catherine as being a very compassionate person. When I was playing the character, I would think of a little girl who would bring home a wounded bird and she would put it into a jar and try to nurse it back to life. The mother would be like, 'It's dead, you have to throw it out,' and the daughter is like, 'No, I can't throw it out, mommy. We'll keep feeding it or something.' She has that thing where she'll try and save people. I mean, even if the bird starts fuming things out and was going to poison her, she'll try to save the bird. That's the type of thing that the movie was about, for me, and it was so interesting to play her against Vince D'Onofrio's character. There was a lot there for me to play with.'

Much of what Lopez had to play against undoubtedly came from the massive amount of research D'Onofrio conducted. 'I did lots of reading and searching out the availability of audio and video information, documentaries and seminars,' says D'Onofrio. 'My problem with this film was not the role, but the research--the study of the psychology. When I talk about it, I want to say so much more to really explain the key things that are behind this kind of stuff, but I can't. Some of it I'm not allowed to talk about because it was given to me under that premise, but other things are simply too much. What you see is a stifled actor trying to explain what he did and why he did it, but I'm truly stifled because there's only a certain amount that I can say.'

Among the criticisms already being leveled against The Cell centers around some of its imagery and graphic violence, and, in turn, the fear that it could incite real-life violence. In the former case, one scene singled out is a moment in which Lopez--to some--appears to be a variation of the Virgin Mary. 'I don't even want to talk about that, because it's so silly,' she says, dismissing the notion. 'The image in the film is based on a Brazilian Sea Goddess. The costume was based on that. The concept had nothing even to do with [the Virgin Mary]. Everything was white, and there are no crosses, there are no references. It's not about that. She's wearing red. That's totally not it, but you've got to find something....'

As to the issue of violence, D'Onofrio is more succinct. 'I don't think these films encourage violence,' he emphasizes, 'I think society does. It's nonsense that the entertainment business and the video arcade business are accused of causing kids to shoot up people in schools, and that violence and rape is because of movies. Give me a break! How about educating society a little better? How about spending a little more time with our educational system rather than running on it as a ticket to become president? How about really doing something about it?'

For Lopez, The Cell serves as an effective stepping stone in a career that has gone into overdrive over the past couple of years. Later this year, she'll be seen in several more films (all in the drama or romantic comedy vein), and soon she will be heading back into the studio to finish recording her sophomore CD. Yet the impression one gets is that this film will have a lingering effect on her in terms of its subject matter and the filmmaking experience itself.

'The great thing about Tarsem,' she notes, 'is that he knows exactly what he wants in every single frame. That's what you want from a director; knowing that they have a vision and they're going to help you get there whatever way they can. What was so interesting about this film is that we were granted so much artistic license. We could experiment with things so that visually and creatively there were no limits.'


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