How 'Cruel Intentions' Brought High-Glamor Cruelty On a Shoestring Budget
For its 20th anniversary, we speak to the cast and crew of the cult classic about persuading the Rolling Stones to play ball, sourcing school uniforms from Goodwill, and how that rosary necklace was made.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Not many films can claim to be truly iconic, but Cruel Intentions is probably an exception. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s crucifix necklace with a twist, Reese Witherspoon goofing around in a convertible classic car, the kiss that was a sexual awakening for an entire generation of queer kids—all these elements make Cruel Intentions age as well as Michelle Obama, or fine wine. To celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, we spoke to the cast and crew that brought Cruel Intentions to the big screen.
February, 1998. Playwright Roger Kumble finishes the script for Cruel Intentions, based on the 16th century novel series Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Choderlos De Laclos. He begins shopping it around the studios. Interest is strong, despite the fact that Kumble has never directed a feature film before.
Neal H. Moritz [producer]: There was a buzz around the script, because it was considered so risque. I actually remember one of my friends reading it and saying, “Are you really going to do this movie?” But that was what I liked about it: I thought it had an incredible attitude, and it was organically real, you know? Obviously it was heightened, but it was also related to what was going on in New York City at the time amongst the young elite class. I was just starting my career, and looking for something that could stand out.
Jon Gary Steele [production designer and art director]: People were talking about the Cruel Intentions script. I thought it was great. I liked the fact that it was a very modern take on Dangerous Liaisons: It was fun and wicked and charming at the same time.
Deborah Offner [actress, “Mrs Michalak”]: I read the script and thought, Hmm, I’m the only adult in this movie with a moral center. It was very much a movie about no-one having a moral center. It celebrates that.
Theo van de Sande [director of photography]: Neal [Moritz, Cruel Intentions’ producer] had tried to get me to work on I Know What You Did Last Summer, and I said no to the film, because I thought it was in-between two genres, and I didn’t like the bloody ending. I said, “Don’t worry, the film is going to be successful, but I don’t want to do it.” He came back to me afterwards and said, “I have another interesting subject, maybe you want to meet the director,” so I read the script and liked it a lot. Of course, I had seen Dangerous Liaisons.
Jon Gary Steele: My pitch was, “money, money, money!” Let’s make this really opulent film about these young people living like rock stars.
Theo van de Sande: The iconic part of Cruel Intentions is that’s such a mean story, but so elegant.
Cruel Intentions secured financing from Sony, but it was to be made on a shoestring $11 million budget. Many of the cast and crew were young and relatively inexperienced.
Neal H. Moritz: It was kind of the beginnings of our careers, before we were jaded about the movie business. We were all basically prior friends in one way or another. Roger and I were social friends, just from growing up in Hollywood together, and I had worked with Sarah Michelle Gellar on I Know What You Did Last Summer, and I knew Reese [Witherspoon] from being around L.A. Selma [Blair] was the newer one to the group, but we were all friends.
Theo van de Sande: Roger [Kumble, the director and screenwriter] had never done any films before—not a short film or a commercial or a documentary. Not even a home movie! It was a unique situation. But he got the chance to direct the film because he said [to the studio], “You can only get this script if I can direct it myself.” Sony wanted the film very much, because they knew it was a unique approach.
Denise Wingate [costume designer]: It was only my second movie. I was pretty young. But I’d been doing a show called Melrose Place, which was quite a high profile show in the States as far as fashion went.
Theo van de Sande: I met with the director, and he’s a very funny guy, and very nice. And he said to me, “Which of your films should I watch, so I know you can do this?” And I thought, that’s a little arrogant. But I named some films I’d done: European films, which were period films with elegance, and American films that were more urban. And then I thought, Wait, what films has he done? Because we didn’t have IMDB back then, so you couldn’t check out a person. So I asked him, “Which films have you done, so I know how I can work with you?” And he said, very bluntly: “Nothing!” I said, “This cannot be! You must have done a documentary; or a TV episode.” And he said, “nope, nothing.”
A cast of young, up-and-coming actors—including Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe, Selma Blair, and Sarah Michelle Gellar—sign onto the project.
Neal H. Moritz: They were all very happening young actors. When we put that cast together we were like, Wow, that’s incredible. You knew all of them would be successful throughout their careers. It was obvious. You’d think, How did we get them all together? And you’d realise it was because the material was just so good. There was not a young actor in Hollywood who didn’t want to do the movie. They all wanted to do the movie. Because typically teen films would be sweet little high school movies that were funny and stuff. But this was not like that. This took it to the next level, by far.
Tessa Posnansky [set decorator]: They [the actors] were all pretty young...I remember the first time I met Ryan Phillippe, he came up to me and said, “I want to meet whoever the production designer and decorator are.” He said, “this is an incredible set”, and thanked me, and that’s something that very few actors ever do. It was a graciousness I hadn’t expected at the time. It meant a lot.
Jon Gary Steele: They were very professional. Sarah Michelle Gellar was probably the most famous at that point, she was awesome. I remember one scene in Sarah’s bedroom, we hung about a thousand crystals above her bed. She’s lying there for a shot and she goes, “Gary!” I'm in the other room and I come in and go, “What's wrong?” She's just lying there looking up at the crystals and she’s touching some of them with her foot, and she says, “Gary, why do I have a billion crystals above my bed?” And I thought, Oh no. Then I replied, “well—you’re the ice princess!” And she said, “Very good, thank you Gary!”
Theo van de Sande: Sarah Michelle Gellar was extremely known because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For Reese [Witherspoon], it was her first big film. Reese brought in Ryan [Phillippe], because they were very close at that time. They had all done TV, so they were experienced in being in front of the cameras and comfortable with that, but for all of them, it was a big opportunity, and they were thankful for that.
Cruel Intentions is shot through 1998 in Los Angeles, by a mostly inexperienced young crew.
Neal H. Moritz: Roger and I were good friends, but we’d never made a movie before. But he was very assured, so I felt like he knew exactly what he was doing. We go off to shoot the first day of the movie, and we’re in downtown Los Angeles, and it became painfully evident to me that, as much as I love Roger, this is his first time directing a movie, and it wasn’t like he knew exactly what to do. I remember we finished the first day, and I went to my car and I thought, I hope I made the right decision here, this could be a disaster—it’s his first movie and he’s never shot movies before! Does he know what he’s doing? I was just kind of panic-stricken. I pulled out of the parking lot, and I was driving I was thinking, Could this be the end of my career? And I pulled out of the entrance of the lot by accident, and I blew all four of my tires. I thought, Oh god, this is an omen. This is how the movie’s going to go.
Theo van de Sande: I also camera operated the film myself, and I got in trouble with the union for that. Because I thought that if this was the director’s first film, he needed someone to help him. It was in his contract that if the studio wasn’t happy with him within the first two weeks, he could be thrown out, so he [Roger], was nervous like crazy. So I said, “I’ll operate the film also,” because in Europe I’d camera operated my own films. But in America you were meant to use operators, because of union rights.
Although Cruel Intentions is set in New York, for budgetary reasons they’re unable to film more than a few scenes there. The crew work hard to produce a high-luxury world on a meager budget.
Theo van de Sande: It was difficult, because it was a low budget film.
Denise Wingate: The movie didn’t have a lot of money, so I’m surprised we managed to make it look so opulent on screen. Prada was super-generous and sent us a lot of stuff, which they don’t really do any more. Ryan was modelling for them, so they sent us a box of clothes which was invaluable, because we had no money. For the scene at the end, with all the extras [when Sebastian’s diary is distributed by his classmates outside his funeral], we had to try and get the cheapest uniforms we could find, because we didn’t want to spend all our money on uniforms for that one scene. We were scrambling...we ended up searching every Goodwill and Salvation Army for navy blazers, and sewing on the gold buttons.
Neal H. Moritz: It was low budget, but for us it was a lot of money, because we were starting off.
Lynda Reiss [prop mistress]: It doesn’t matter how big the show is; there never is enough money! That said, we did use things like silver for the rosary [necklace that Kathryn uses to store cocaine], but if people asked us, we’d say it was platinum.
Theo van de Sande: We didn’t have a lot of money, but the film had to look extremely rich. The interior of the big house in New York was all staged. We had to be very strict and very precise with how we designed each shot. For example, if you look at the garden of the country house, we had some shots of Reese Witherspoon that are in the direction of the mansion, which was in Pasadena; and other shots we shot in New York, to make it look like she was in New York. We had to combine the L.A. shoots with the New York shoots, to make it look like it was all shot in New York. But we were only actually in New York for three days of the whole film shoot. So it had to be very well planned.
The tight-knit crew sneak subliminal messages and symbolism into the film.
Theo van de Sande: In the opening of the film, with the helicopter shot over New York—that’s a very unique shot, which I’d always wanted to do. The first time I ever arrived in New York, you drive past this tremendous cemetery to arrive at Manhattan, and I was very much impressed by the size of the cemetery, and the visuals of it. So I suggested that because Sebastian dies at the end of the film, and we wanted to have something that was edgy, we should start the film on an image where you don’t know what it is, and then the helicopter takes off and you see the world, Manhattan, and your character. So it was almost like predicting he was going to die at the end. We worked out a lot of symbolism in detail in the film, and it was a lot of work.
Denise Wingate: There’s one scene where Cecile [Selma Blair] is going to Sebastian’s house for the first time, and she sneaks out of the house. I put her in a red-hooded sweatshirt so she would look like Little Red Riding Hood, going to see the big bad wolf. We threw stuff like that in as subliminal jokes.
Brad Wilder [principal makeup artist]: Reese’s character was very pure, so the makeup was very subtle...Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character was more of a manipulator, so we had more makeup on her, and she was more done up in her makeup and wardrobe.
Lynda Reiss: I wish I had done the final journal with a different color cover. The white paper always bugged me.
As production continues, the film’s uncompromisingly dark subject matter, explicit sex scenes, and foul language begin to make the studio heads nervous. On set though, the crew know they’re making something special.
Theo van de Sande: It’s always the case that when the studio heads read the script and think, This is fantastic, this is edgy, this is great, this is new, but when you really do it, and they see it, they say, “This is too much,” because now they’re responsible for it. Until the decision has been made to make the film, it’s the responsibility of the writer and the director. But when it’s the studio’s property, suddenly they’re ashamed of it. That was the case. It’s very funny. So when Sony saw the first dailies, they said, “We can’t do this: They smoke, and the kids will see they smoke, Jesus Christ, the whole story is like that.” So we started filming different versions: We made a Sony version, and a Malkovich version. The Sony version would be a little cleaner.
Neal H. Moritz: We had a feeling that we were shooting something special, but then again, none of us had any experience to know whether we were or weren’t. We just knew we were out there trying to make something cool and fun, and we were having a good time doing it, and we were all just so hopeful it would be as great as what we were hoping it could be.
Lynda Reiss: I always remember shutting down the 110 freeway (Interstate 110) so I could retrieve the cell phone Sebastian throws from the car. And of course, shooting the famous picnic kiss scene in Central Park.
Theo van de Sande: It was the middle of Central Park, on a Tuesday morning, at 9 o'clock. We were surrounded by paparazzi, because Sarah Michelle Gellar was very well known.
Neal H. Moritz: For us, winning an MTV award was the equivalent of winning an Oscar at the time, because the MTV Movie Awards were so big, and I remember when we were shooting, somebody did say, “That’s a shoe-in for the MTV Award, which is ultimately what happened.”
Jon Gary Steele: I remember watching the kiss thinking, this has to be good. This kiss has to be amazing. We’ve got to win the MTV best kiss. And we did win that! [The kissing scene in Central Park won the 2000 MTV award.]
Neal H. Moritz: The most difficult thing by far about the whole movie was when we cut together the movie, and we put “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve over the last scene, at the funeral. It was painfully obvious that there was no song we would ever find that would be as good. We were negotiating with The Verve to put that song in, but there was a copyright infringement lawsuit going on between them and the Rolling Stones. We were going back and forth, and they were asking for an incredible amount of money for the song. We probably put 200 songs up against that scene, to see if there was anything we could replace it with, and there was nothing that was even close. That was our biggest struggle: How do we convince The Rolling Stones and The Verve to let us use that song? Ultimately, we convinced them with money, but also with our passion. If we didn’t have that song, it would have been a very different end to the movie.
Upon release, Cruel Intentions’ unique visual aesthetic, cynical world-view, razor-sharp dialogue, distinctive fashion looks, and unrelentingly dark subject matter makes it a critical hit.
Neal H. Moritz: The rooms were incredible, the actors were incredible, what they’re wearing was incredible, the words they were saying was incredible—it came together.
Denise Wingate: It really holds up. I’m surprised at how it holds up, even after 20 years. I think because the clothing is quite classic, it doesn’t seem so dated now.
Theo van de Sande: It holds up completely. Apart from the cellphones! The rest of it holds up, completely.
Denise Wingate: It was almost like doing theatre, or a play. It was just very, very contained. Movies now are so big, and there’s so many people involved. This was just completely different. It was this little group of artistic people, who were being really creative.
Tessa Posnansky: The director really encouraged everything we were doing, which was great…and Gary [Steele] was always pushing the envelope, to get us to go further. With the blue bedroom, we’d always think, Is this too much? We’d have the blue bed, the walls, the trim was in a silvery color, and all the bedding, all the details, and then Gary had the idea of putting the crystals above the bed. He was utterly convinced it would make the shot, and it did. A lot is said about the blue room, and it gets referred to quite a bit. And that was another thing where we went completely overboard.
Denise Wingate: I wanted to create a world of timeless things. The scene in the park where Sarah kisses Selma, we completely modelled that on Audrey Hepburn, with the hat and the glasses.
Theo van de Sande: If you look at the film, and see how it’s shot, it’s very classic. Everything is beautiful, elegant, and tasteful. And the dialogue, and morality of the actors, contrasts with that visual approach...You don’t find in Cruel Intentions kitchens, or TVs, or other mundane things. The moment there was something mundane, we thought, Let’s find something else.
Denise Wingate: I wanted to marry the period of the original Dangerous Liaisons with a contemporary look. So we built the bustier into the first scene, under the Dolce and Gabbana suit that Sarah wears. Ryan’s long black coat was made for him, but it was based on the silhouette of an 18th century coat that I’d pulled from a costume house, and contemporised by lining it with a burgundy-silver lining. We tried to marry the silhouettes of the 18th century with the high fashion of the time, using really big designers like Prada, and Dolce and Gabbana, to do both.
Lynda Reiss: I built the rosary necklace from scratch. Nothing existed exactly as I wanted. I researched period poison vial jewelry from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as all kinds of rosaries. And I needed something that could realistically hold a decent amount of coke, but not look too huge in Sarah’s hands, as she’s quite tiny. I chose the pearls as a throwback to the period of the original story, as well as to complement Denise’s costumes, and Gary’s sets.
In the 20 years since its release, Cruel Intentions has grown a cult following, even if subsequent attempts to revive the film’s success have fallen flat (a planned TV reboot was cancelled, and Cruel Intentions 2 was critically panned.)
Neal H. Moritz: It’s one of those things that’s had an evergreen property. Kids today, even, know what it is. It’s been very interesting how much, out of all the movies I’ve made, this one stands out. Whenever it’s mentioned, people say, “I love that movie! It brings me back to my high school years, or whatever.” It’s definitely something that sparks a lot of conversation.
Deborah Offner: I’m amazed at people who still come up to me and say, “I just saw you in Cruel Intentions.” But I think when you take a story that’s timelessly mythic, and well done, it just imprints itself.
Theo van de Sande: It was made almost as a European film. I see American films as products, it’s a machine that delivers a film. Whereas European films are projects, as in you all work together to make something unique. That’s the difference, and that’s why Cruel Intentions is an iconic film. Because it’s a project, not a product. Anything that would make the film a product, we fought.
Neal H. Moritz: It ranks as one of my top overall life experiences.
Theo van de Sande: We were all on the same track. When I look back at it, we were all making the same film. The producer wasn’t trying to make a film that was making a lot of money; the art director wasn’t trying to make a film that would win him an Oscar. It was all about telling the story in the most elegant way possible—with that mean undercurrent.
Jon Gary Steele: Why do people love it so much? Because it’s sexy. Everybody wants to be young, wealthy, and sexy.