A new podcast explodes at the box-office
One day last December, Julie Salmon was sorting through a pile of old plastic boxes at a storage unit in Lower Manhattan. Salaman, 68, is a journalist, author, and self-described pack rat. The boxes were incidental galleries at the Museum of a Life’s Work, filled with relics—notebooks, clippings, photos and tapes—accumulated for the dozens of books that Salmon has published since 1988.
Salmon came looking for a box containing the contents of her second book, “The Devil’s Candy”, published in 1991. She had recently agreed to adapt the book—a famous account of the making of the infamous box-office flop “The Bonfire.” Off the Vanities, based on Tom Wolfe’s sweeping social satire of 1980s New York City—for the second season of the Hollywood history podcast “The Plot Thickens” from Turner Classic Movies.
Salamon was hoping to find a consignment of mini cassette tapes, which had been recorded on set over the entire course of the film’s production. The tape’s audio included unusually candid interviews with the director, Brian De Palma, his crew and the film’s stars – Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith and Morgan Freeman – and will be an important component of the podcast.
But when Salamon finally got the “Devil’s Candy” box, the tapes weren’t there. Upset, she returned to her apartment in Soho and began searching. It was there, after a few frantic days, that she found several zip-lock freezer bags filled with mini cassette tape in the back of a large home office cabinet. The bags have not been opened for 30 years.
Creating the podcast, which recently ended its seven-episode run, was a late career turning point for Salmon, giving her the rare opportunity to revisit the story of a lifetime three decades later. But, as the author knew better than anyone, adaptations are never simple—at least not when “The Bonfire of the Vanities” is involved.
“Putting this podcast together gave me an added appreciation for Brian’s dilemma,” Salaman said. “At first you don’t know what you’re doing, but then you just start doing it.”
When it hit the bookshelf in 1991, “The Devil’s Candy” stunned Hollywood. It painted a vivid and well-crafted portrait of an industry that had been closely watched by few outsiders. (Or as we will see today—armies of studios and private publicists keep journalists from getting too far.) Salmon, who was at the time a film critic for The Wall Street Journal (he later worked for The New York Times), told D. Palma, who, by the late 1980s, had given hits such as “Carrie,” “Scarface” and “The Untouchables,” but had some career slowdown. With her participation, her book portrays the world of big-budget studio filmmaking as a high-stakes battle in which three business factions – actors, executives and spectators – are always at odds with themselves and each other.
At the center of the story was one of the most infamous train wrecks in film history. “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, as written by Wolfe, was a kaleidoscope of greed and cynicism in “Me Decade”, filled with characters who were easy to hate and hard to look away from. The book became an instant bestseller and media sensation in 1987, making it all but inevitable that someone would try to turn it into a film. But its sharp edges didn’t last in Hollywood. Warner Bros. recently defended the story’s central character, a slipping Bond trader, and the self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe” named Sherman McCoy by casting Hanks of “Big”. Its memorable ruthless ending also got the axe. In its place was an invented scene, in which Freeman, playing a judge, delivers an uncompromising moral exhortation.
Behind the scenes, the project was plagued from the start. Its biggest early cheerleader, a powerful producer named Peter Guber, left the studio before production began. This set the stage for a showdown between De Palma, a withdrawn and precise visionary, and Warner Bros. executives eager to defend a bloated $50 million investment. De Palma, who was uninterested in oversight, shut down officials from key aspects of production. The officers fired back—at one point, they threatened to hold him personally liable for the cost escalation.
Anyone who worked on the film – not even Salmon, who watched the shooting and sat in on the meetings – recognized it as a creative failure until it was screened for a test audience. By then it was too late. Critics raved about the “bonfire” – “gross, wacky” and “wildly uneven”, the newspaper declared – and the filmmakers shunned it. It made less than $16 million at the box office.
The podcast version of “The Devil’s Candy” maintains the original narrative of the book but adds new layers. Most powerful is audio, salvaged from Salaman’s freezer bag. Throughout the series, retrospective narration gives way to contemporary recordings that capture events as they happened. Recordings also turn written characters into living, breathing people. Everything you need to know about the particular breed of difficult movie star Bruce Willis was in 1990—the always-present bodyguard, rude to assistants—is the snarky tone he used in his interview with Salamon. .
“For me, the tapes really add a richness that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” Salaman said. “I guess I’m not a bad writer, but there’s no way you can write anything that’s like watching someone tell their story.”
Salmon adapted “The Devil’s Candy” in close partnership with the fiction podcast company Campside Media, which co-produced this season of “The Plot Thickens” with TCM. He needed to break his 420-page book into seven 40-minute podcast episodes.
Natalia Winkelman, 28, a producer at Campside (and a freelance film critic for The Times), was a kind doer and confidant to Salmon, guiding her through the months-long process of translating her reporting into podcast scripts. did. Although Salmon’s career as a writer extended to fiction, memoir and children’s literature, he had no experience writing for Cannes, a distinctive form with unique qualities and constraints.
“Clauses don’t work so 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 click really fast. If I gave her a note – it looks a bit read–You – She’ll come back with something better than what I could come up with. “
Salaman also wanted to build on the book by adding new reporting and interviews. The podcast’s more emotionally compelling moments then and now, stemmed from the alternation between record and memory. One of the many indelible figures from the book, whom Salmon interviews again, is Eric Schwab, the second-unit director on “Bonfire” and the protagonist of De Palma, a breakout before the film’s bombing. Career ready.
“A lot of the people who worked on the film were at a turning point in their careers,” said Angela Caron, director of podcasts at TCM who edited the season with Salmon. “We get to tell their whole stories on the podcast in a way that’s not in the book.”
Not everyone who collaborated with the book returned for the podcast. None of the film’s stars sat down for new interviews (TCM stated that the recording was legally the property of Salmon and it informed those whose voices are used in the show). Neither did De Palma, although Salaman said the two remain good friends. (Through a rep, the director and stars also declined to speak for this story.)
In the absence of stars, the podcast becomes more systematic in its approach. It gives us the idealistic and overworked — the assistant who dreams of becoming a producer, the place to find aspirin for breakfast — who win small amidst the chaos and terror of the film set.
Some of the salamons that were documented 30 years ago look different through a modern lens. The fifth episode focuses on several women who have always had a more precarious position on film than their male peers. In that episode, a current Amy Morris — a 22-year-old production assistant on “Bonfire” — angrily recalls shooting a scene that doesn’t appear in the novel with actress Beth Broderick. In the scene, Broderick’s character photocopies her naked crotch; Filming it required Broderick, who was De Palma’s girlfriend at the time, for nine hours repeatedly taking off her underwear and getting on and down a Xerox machine.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” Morris says in the episode. The scene “had nothing to do with anything. It’s just disgusting. It’s just anti-woman.”
Salamon, who wrote critically of the Xerox scene in his book, said that revisiting it with Morris made his frame more clearly an anecdote, this time.
“It just made me realize how much garbage women admitted back in the day that we wouldn’t do anymore,” she said.
For Salemone, working on the podcast was a strange and emotional experience, which forced her to reflect not only on her characters’ journeys but on her own.
When she first considered becoming “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 his genre (it is still regularly taught in film schools) and changed the trajectory of his life.
“To hear those voices took me back to that moment,” Salamon said, describing what it was like hearing the tape for the first time. “I was starting a new life and becoming a young mother and transitioning into a new profession that I loved. It was awesome. I was on an adventure.”
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