Columbia Tristar Pictures
The Big Chill/
Written directed, and produced by Laurent Bouzereau
When the 15th anniversary edition of The Big Chill was released, the DVD included a special documentary on the making of the film. All of the principal actors, writers, the director, and some crew commented on the process involved in creating this particular motion picture.
I transcribed the interviews that seemed particularly relevant to Mary Kay Place or to her character. The entire hour-long documentary is fascinating, so that I highly recommend buying (or at least renting) the disc in order to see the valuable contributions, and not just read them here.
Because this is a transcript of a filmed interview, natural speech patterns have not been edited to correct grammar or sentence structure errors.
Lawrence Kasdan, the director and co-writer of The Big Chill discusses the casting choice of Mary Kay Place as “Meg”:
“Mary Kay Place, I had seen on TV. She had been on a very funny TV series, and I had always admired her and liked her country style and down-home qualities.”
On JoBeth Williams’s own casting, she said:
“I found out late that Larry Kasdan had actually written the role that I played with me in mind, because he had seen me, I guess in Poltergeist, and wanted me to play her. And I really wanted to play a different part. I wanted to play the part that Mary Kay played, the lawyer who wanted to have baby and felt her clock ticking and all that, because it was something I could very relate to.”
“Well I wanted, of course, to play the Mary Kay Place part. I remember saying to him, ‘I guess you want me for the Sarah Cooper part, right?’ [laughs] Kind of the mothering, nurturing one, which was kind of the image that I had kind of projected in Garp.”
“Everybody wanted to be in this movie, and that was what was exciting. The actors responded to it as being their story. They had all had one version or another of this kind of life. They had been through this same period the same way I had, and they wanted to be part of a movie that talked about it.”
The studio would not allow a longer shooting time for The Big Chill, but they did allow a two week rehearsal time prior to shooting. JoBeth Williams characterized the rehearsal as “unheard of on a movie.”
“There was a tape recorder in the middle of the table we’d sit around in this rehearsal room. We would exchange parts. We would add, you know, we would improvise.”
Mary Kay Place:
“When we were doing the flashback scenes, we went in the house, and we literally, in character, for two or three days in character, creating these scenarios, that had been alluded to in the script, maybe they were hints or clues in the script about certain back stories.”
“There’s something you can see that you can’t even define. It’s a comfort, a physical comfort with one another. There’s a sense of history, even if it’s only a four week history. We were all very comfortable with one another; we knew what each person’s space was and how you could kind of nudge up against it or violate it or dance around it or whatever. Sometimes you can do that meeting the actor on the day, but I think for an ensemble film that it was a really brilliant idea to have us spend that four weeks together.”
“It was very important to me that these actors, who did not know each other when we started, start to have some relationship to each other that would make their friendship convincing.”
The actors were housed in summer condos on the coast of South Carolina, but the neighborhood was practically deserted since they were filming in the middle of winter.
Mary Kay Place:
“The party house was Jeff [Goldblum] and Kevin’s, and they had a piano that they had rented, and that’s where the games were.”
“We had a lot of trivia games, and charades, poker, things like that.”
Mary Kay Place:
“We went there and cooked big meals every night. And we went there, and they played the piano and sang, and then we all sang, and then we all put the records on and danced and danced. And, I mean, it was ridiculous.”
“Naturally, it was Mary Kay that sort of dragged me into that because I don’t consider myself as a group person, and I love reading, and I ‘d say, ‘No, I think I’ll just go back and read.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. You’ve got to come and dance.’ I said, ‘Dance? Are you joking?’ So, she kind of pulled me in.”
“Glenn Close and Mary Kay and I went to K-Mart to buy Halloween costumes because we were filming during Halloween, and, I don’t know, we got some weird garb for ourselves, and we also bought women’s underwear in huge sizes. I remember we bought like a 48, Double D bra, giant underwear, giant panties.”
“And we bought a whole bunch of them, and we went back to Jeff and Kevin’s house and we hung them when they were out. This was a great surprise for them, a very ‘mature’ and stupid thing to do. And we hung them on the fan in their living room and then when they arrived we would put the fan on slow and all of a sudden they noticed that these huge, huge pieces of underwear were circulating around the room and then we’d make the fan faster and faster until it was being flung all over the room, and we would laugh hysterically.”
Mary Kay Place:
“We all, uh, got to know each other very well during this period of time because we literally off-screen were having, um, certainly we weren’t having sex, but I mean we we’re having the same fellowship and fun so that every day we would do the scenes and every night we would have our own version of it [pauses] at Jeff and Kevin’s house.”
“It is an almost unheard of luxury to be able to shoot in continuity. The thing that makes it possible is when you have a simple location, and for the most part the entire picture takes place at and around the house. We could move around quite freely in the house and keep the movie as much in continuity as possible and hopefully the actors would have the same kind of progressive experience of that weekend, except over 53 days.”
“Larry Kasdan wanted us all there, all the time, even if we weren’t filming. If somebody else, you know, if it was a two-person scene between Mary Kay Place and Kevin Kline, Larry still wanted everybody around, and sometimes that was frustrating because we’d want to go off and do something for the day or whatever, but his feeling was, ‘You never knew who might pop up in the background in this house.’ He might want to see my character, Karen, walk past the door while Mary Kay and Bill Hurt are having their talking scene.”
Glenn Close said that the house had a “dead space at the bottom of the stairs where the sound wouldn’t record.”
Mary Kay Place:
“The house was, in fact, haunted. We had one incident that I found very interesting because I, you know, there were all these wonderful scrapbooks about the history of this house and how in the Civil War it had been a hospital and later it had been bed and breakfasts, and sort of what had happened throughout the years. And so, on night, I think we were shooting that dinner table scene, and it was late in the night, it was like three in the morning, and there was some kind of crash, there were three floors, up on the third floor, and this sound man was flipped out, and he had picked up some, you know, ghost voice or something, and of course in the scrapbook, it had said that throughout the years there had always been these ghost noises and cries and all these different things, so we all huddled around the sound truck and listened, and it was scary and kind of exciting.”
Now the discussion turns to the process of actually filming the movie.
Mary Kay Place:
“There was an interesting thing that I observed while we were shooting, and this had never happened before. Larry literally had a stopwatch, he had the script supervisor time the scenes, and he knew how long each scene should take to film, and if we did it slower than that, then he had us do another take because he had experienced having to cut scenes that mattered to him from an earlier film because the film was too long and so, he was very clear we were to stay withing that time frame, and pick up the pace if we had done it in a slower, more languid version. So, it was fascinating to me. I’d never worked like that but I thought, ‘This is great because it kind of imposes discipline on the scene.’”
When doing scenes that included music, the actors often had to react to the song, even though the particular song had not even been chosen. The sound team wants clean dialog, and the music could drown that out. Therefore, the music is added later when making a film.
Mary Kay Place:
“A lot of movies when you’re doing a dance scene or musical scene, they will just play a moment of this, the music, and then they cut it off, and you have to pretend like you can hear it in your ear and just sort of imagine, you know, you’ve got the rhythm going in your brain, but it’s just not the same as actually hearing the music. So, we were fortunate to have these little earplugs that we’d put inside our ears which actually played back the music so we’d really have the actual tune to dance to. And also, people don’t have a good memory that someone’s dancing to one rhythm and someone else is dancing to another, and it’s clear that everything’s not in sync.”
Glenn Close discusses the “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” dinner cleanup scene:
“It was very ironic to me that in that one scene where we’re all dancing in the kitchen, that I was the one who felt most insecure about dancing, and it was my bottom that you...It was like, everyone else, Mary Kay Place is a fantastic dancer, she’s a great swing dancer, she’s, you know, and it was like he focused on me, and I thought, ‘Oh, gosh.’”
Barbara Benedek, who co-wrote the script, had to be sold on the storyline involving Mary Kay Place’s character, Meg, wanting to have one of her friends father a baby with “no strings attached.” Lawrence Kasdan, who was the other co-writer, compared Meg’s going to bed with her friend’s husband as “very benign” compared to other content available in other films of the time.
Mary Kay Place:
“I though it was insane. [laughs] I mean, first of all, let me just make one thing clear. My character never asked Glenn. You know, Glenn’s character, Sarah, gets this idea, asks her husband, played by Kevin Kline, and then they present the idea to me. I can’t imagine asking a woman, whether she was that close to a friend or not, if you could, please, have a child with her husband. I just, it’s not a question I could ever imagine asking anyone. And I can’t imagine anyone ever offering. [laughs] Not to say that, you know, and over the years of course, many people have said, ‘Well, I would have done that.’ Then many people have said, ‘Well, I would have never been able to handle that.’ And I just wanted it to be sweet, because it was such a sweet, generous, albeit strange, offer. And I thought the energy of the scene should really just be loving and sweet and tender as opposed to any kind of, you know, lusty, I mean, that just didn’t feel right at all. I thought it should just be a very tender kind of scene. You know, it’s an odd thing to have a love scene with the whole crew standing around, but it was so sweet. I mean, it was just the sweetest scene, and I was grateful that that scene was with Kevin, because, you know, we found a way to make it fun and more comfortable than I ever imagined it could be. [laughs]