Movie Fans Repeated ‘Candyman.’ But Not The Name of Its Director.
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — At first there weren’t a lot of people besides the writer-director Bernard Rose who thought it was a good idea to make …
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — At first there weren’t a lot of people besides the writer-director Bernard Rose who thought it was a good idea to make the title villain of the 1992 film “Candyman” Black.
But if the success of that movie, which became a horror classic, inspired Jordan Peele and led to a new sequel, has made a pop culture trope out of its signature moment — staring into mirror and uttering “Candyman” five times — it hasn’t quite meant the same for its director. Within a decade of the film’s release, Rose all but vanished from Hollywood’s radar.
It might have been because his two big budget films, “Immortal Beloved” and “Anna Karenina,” both released in the ’90s, flopped. Or because Rose ticked off the wrong people with his 2000 indie “Ivans XTC,” which took a scathing look at talent agents. Or because he hopped from horror to period pieces to indie films, making him tough to peg.
Rose’s slightly anarchic way of filmmaking certainly didn’t help. He rejects the mantra that screenplays need a three-act structure, and has an aversion to redemptive character arcs and cheery endings.
Yet if Hollywood turned its back on Rose, he, a brainy 61-year-old Englishman with a predilection for clever asides, didn’t abandon it.
He stayed put in Los Angeles, carving out a singular career making small, scrappy, dark movies — four of them based on Tolstoy and starring his friend Danny Huston. Now Rose is hoping that the new “Candyman,” produced by Peele and directed by Nia DaCosta, will goose his fortunes, even though he wasn’t involved in the project at all.
Should the movie bring Rose more recognition, admirers say it would be overdue. Grant Moninger, the creative director at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, compared him to the Ken Russell, whose out-there output included “Women in Love,” “The Music Lovers” and “Altered States.”
“His films are beautiful and incredibly made and subversive,” said Moninger, who organized a retrospective of Rose’s work in 2015. “He’s also a mercurial kind of renegade guy, and in Hollywood they want you to do one thing.”
Tony Todd, who memorably played the title character in “Candyman,” believes that posterity will have the final say. “I have no doubt that at the end of the day his work will be recognized and celebrated,” he said.
Rose met over coffee on a broiling morning in June, not far from the rental apartment that he shares with his girlfriend. Tall and tending to leaven his intensity with schoolboy giggles, he spent much of the two-and-a-half hour interview holding forth: on Baudelaire, the Lumière brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Derek Jarman (his mentor and friend); on a basement nook of the Louvre where apparently a bunch of erect penises, excised from sculptures, are shelved; and on his belief that post-pandemic life will yield a new Jazz Age.
He insists that his lack of commercial success after “Candyman” didn’t sour him on Tinseltown, partly because he assumes that the success itself happened by accident.
“Everyone feels ignored and undervalued here, so either it doesn’t matter to me, or I don’t notice it or don’t care,” Rose said. “There is a low level air of desperation you sometimes feel in L.A., which weirdly I kind of quite like.”
Rose grew up in North London, of Russian Jewish descent, the middle child of a lawyer and a university lecturer. From the start, he was film obsessed. At 15, he won a BBC film competition for youngsters, and a year later dropped out of school, to his family’s dismay.
After working for a few years in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Rose began directing music videos. “Relax,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, brought him modest fame after its risqué gay content — leather boys, sex toys, water sports — helped get it banned by the BBC. (The network aired a tame version the band filmed later.)
After his first feature film, the 1988 thriller “Paperhouse,” drew praise from Roger Ebert, Rose got the OK to make Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” about an urban legend named Candyman, into a film. Rose pitched it to Steve Golin, an executive at Propaganda Films, the buzzy studio behind TV’s “Twin Peaks,” who said yes. “He never ever said yes to me about anything else ever again,” Rose said. (Golin died in 2019.)
Barker’s Candyman was a white blond specter who haunted a derelict Liverpool housing estate, but Rose wanted the widest audience, and set the film in the United States (with Barker’s blessing, he said). Rose chose Chicago, and had no plans to change the lead character’s ethnicity until, intent on setting the film in an American slum, he asked local film commissioners to take him to the city’s worst housing project.
They took him to Cabrini-Green. It wasn’t the decrepit state of the place that shocked him so much, as the fact that the commission folks approached with trepidation and insisted on bringing along two police officers.
“There was an unacknowledged sense that it was genuinely a ghetto that had borders that you couldn’t go beyond — an acceptance that that was that,” Rose said.
He returned to Cabrini by himself, and met a young mother who, like so many other residents, was neither a gang member nor a criminal, just someone living her life. “The idea that just by walking around you’d risk getting shot was irrational,” he said.
So “Candyman” got a retooling. Rose made him the avenging ghost of an educated 19th century Black painter (played by Todd) who had been lynched for having a love affair with a white woman. Changing the character’s race made lots of people “very, very nervous,” Rose said, among them Golin and several racial justice advocates who visited the production to voice their concerns.
Rose said he told detractors that horror movies often feature a reversal, where the villain becomes something of the hero — the character that everyone remembers, and even tacitly roots for.
The film starred Virginia Madsen as a graduate student researching the urban legend of Candyman, and drew from a real life public housing murder in Chicago, where the killers got to their victim by climbing through the bathroom cabinet.
“A Black monster was pretty revolutionary,” Jordan Peele told Empire Magazine in 2020. “If there was no ‘Candyman,’ I don’t know that there would be a ‘Get Out.’”
Golin ordered a sequel, and Rose wrote a script about a modern day Jack the Ripper who stalked London, brutally slaying women whose bodies end up being devoured in Buckingham Palace by members of the royal family. Rose said that Golin told him outright it was the worst script he’d ever read. (Two middling sequels were made without Rose’s involvement).
He had already gotten the go-ahead to make a passion project, “Immortal Beloved,” with Gary Oldman starring as Beethoven. During his research, he came across Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and was taken with how the writer wrangled with existential questions and frankly chronicled torturous thoughts.
Though “Immortal Beloved” underperformed, Rose went on to successfully pitch an “Anna Karenina” adaptation to Warner Bros. The production, which took him and a sprawling cast and crew to Russia for several months, proved to be an inflection point in his career.
After Rose screened his 145-minute cut of the film for studio honchos, an executive turned to him to lament, “She’s so unsympathetic — she cheats on her husband!” To which Rose had no answer, because that was basically the synopsis of the book.
The studio edited and released a shorter version of the film that tanked, and that Rose loathed, largely because it warped the heart of the story. As other projects languished, he approached Huston, who shared his love for the author.
“We were sitting around moaning and groaning, being quite boring and complaining about the film industry and the studio system and waiting for the eternal green light to have permission to work,” Huston recalled.
Their idea: an indie based on Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” about a social climbing, high ranking court official with a terminal illness who becomes increasingly self-reflective as death nears. Rose shot what came to be titled “Ivans XTC” digitally, at the time a novel technology, with Huston playing a wunderkind talent agent locked in a death spiral fueled by copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. The character was loosely based on Rose’s former agent, Jay Moloney, a star at Creative Artists Agency whose cocaine addiction cost him his job.
The film earned critical acclaim. “Imagine Robert Altman’s ‘The Player,’ but more pitiless and with more heart, simultaneously,” read an article in The Guardian. But during postproduction, Moloney had killed himself; Rose believes the film ultimately got him fired from the agency and cost him his commercial career.
Whether or not “Ivans XTC” indeed got Rose banished is a matter of mild debate among his friends. Huston, who credits the intense title performance with launching his own acting career — the writer and producer Larry Karaszewski counts Huston’s screen performance as one of his all-time favorites — sees the film’s take on Hollywood “as a love letter of sorts,” adding: “Maybe a little poisonous.”
Adam Krentzman, a former agent at C.A.A. who played an agent in “Ivans XTC,” said Rose was not one to be told what to do by financiers, studios and distributors. At the same time, he said, “Immortal Beloved” and “Anna Karenina” simply didn’t make enough money.
“It became hard to get that next picture when those movies didn’t do that well,” Krentzman said.
Whatever the case, after “Ivans XTC,” Rose slipped further into obscurity even as he forged ahead with an idiosyncratic roster of films.
Three more were based on Tolstoy stories — “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Boxing Day” and “2 Jacks” — all set in the modern day, all starring Huston, all delving into the self-destructiveness, vanity and excess. Skewering the rich, while stopping just short of judging them, became a recurring theme.
Those films barely got a theatrical release, but they showed Rose’s commitment to characters who are messy, conflicted and often meet bad ends. “If we only regard cinema as a way of entertaining,” he said, “we’re actually ignoring one of its biggest functions, which is to record how people really were, and what was going on.”
“The problem, and this is really simply the problem,” he continued, “is how to reconcile that stuff with actually earning a living.”
Early in the pandemic, Rose decided to make film about what was going on in Los Angeles, where, despite lockdown, wealthy people were throwing parties while restaurant workers and drivers risked their health catering to them.
He enlisted Huston, Todd, and other actors he knows — Stephen Dorff and Olivia d’Abo, among them — to make a lightly fictionalized picture called “Traveling Light,” told through the eyes of the haves and also, pointedly, the have-nots. Rose plans to debut “Traveling Light” at the Beyond Fest film festival in Los Angeles this fall.
As for the new “Candyman,” Rose said he’s happy that Peele is behind it and that it is told through Black characters, even though he had to press MGM, the studio releasing the film, to pay him royalties. (MGM said it provided him with a contractual passive writing fee based on his writing credit from the first film).
Given that the movie, which he hasn’t yet seen, is a box office topper, Rose said there was “no earthly reason” why his unmade sequel — by his own admission a “wild and crazy ride” — shouldn’t be dusted off.
He wouldn’t mind adapting more Tolstoy, though “War and Peace” is really the only big tale he hasn’t tackled. And he already really likes Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1960s Russian version.
Also, he said, “no one’s going to pay on that scale.”