Perfect Stranger (2002): James Foley’s Noir, Starring Halle Berry

“This is a movie about secrets. Those we have. Those we share.  And those we’ll do anything to protect”–James Foley

Rowena Price (Halle Berry) is an investigative reporter who has perfected the art of exposing other peoples secrets. So when childhood friend Grace Clayton, who was having an affair with married advertising executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), turns up murdered, Rowena is determined to find the truth. Thanks to her associate, tech-savvy Miles Haley (Giovanni Ribisi), Rowena gains access to Graces e-mail and learns that Grace was threatening to go to Hills wife. Armed with that knowledge, Rowena goes undercover and becomes the perfect stranger first as a temp, Katherine, in Hills advertising agency, and then as Rocketgirl aka Veronica, another one of his online paramours. She watches the unsuspecting Hill from all sides, taking note of his wife doing the same. This is a man with an appetite for power, a weakness for women, and a wife on alert. The closer Ro gets to the truth, the more we begin to ask: What was this secret Grace had And why would someone kill to protect it In a film about secrets and advertising, not everything is as it seems.

Everybody Lies

For James Foley, who has previously explored such territory in the psychological thrillers At Close Range, Fear, and Glengarry Glen Ross, the idea goes even further. Everybody lies; it just depends on how big the lie is and what the consequences of the lie are, says the director. Im fascinated by the idea that people sometimes act in ways that they dont realize what theyre doing the audience understands the characters behavior, but the character himself does not. In addition, a characters double life lends itself to something that the cinema is uniquely designed to do: you can see and hear a character saying or doing something and realize that theyre thinking something completely different.

According to producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, director James Foley was the perfect choice to bring the film to the screen. He understands the intricacy of the world of shadows, she says. He gets that we all present only a certain face to the world. This is a movie about duality the face we present and the face we keep hidden.

This movie tries to explore the limits of human behavior the lengths that people will go to keep the truth hidden, says Foley. The French filmmaker Robert Bresson once said something like, The directors job is to make visible that which you might never have seen. Thats always stuck with me –each human being has an insight into what it is to be human that other human beings dont. To make a film is to reveal what it is to be human. When somebody else gets it and thinks about that in a new way thats the ultimate thrill for me.

We live in a world in which nothing is as it seems, says Goldsmith-Thomas. We believe things at face value, but we are living in an age in which we ought to be more cautious. We should ask questions about the world around us, whether were receiving a diagnosis from a doctor or buying a product at the supermarket or meeting a person online. Its not coincidental that this film is set in an advertising agency. Things are packaged as the perfect product, but we know that nothing is perfect, most especially strangers, who can present one face but can hide so many others.

Online Anonymity

According to Goldsmith-Thomas, the idea for Perfect Stranger came out of a conversation with her husband, co-producer Daniel A. Thomas. We thought that the idea of online anonymity where anyone can be anyone was a provocative theme to explore. Its a dangerous gamble to presume that the person were speaking to online is who they say they are. So, we started kicking around stories about what would happen when a persons virtual world collides with his real world. And Perfect Stranger was born.

Casting Halle Berry

“We didn’t consider anyone else for the lead role,” says Goldsmith-Thomas. Halle loved what we wanted to do, where we wanted to take it. Knowing that she was playing a character that was playing a character, she looked at scenes from every angle to make sure there were no loose ends. We were blessed to have her as our partner.

You cant fully appreciate the complexity of Halles performance, says Goldsmith-Thomas, until you go back and watch the film a second time. When you do, you realize that there were clues all along and reactions you might have missed the first go round. Essentially, she had to play this character on three different levels: one as Rowena Price, one as Katherine Pogue, and another as Veronica. We would watch her alter each performance based on which mask she was putting on. It was nothing short of remarkable.

James Foley praises Berrys ability to portray the characters double (or triple) life. Halle is playing a character, and the character is acting, he points out. We have to believe the characters performance as well as Halles performance as the character. The way she was able to flip back and forth between the different aspects of her character amazed me.

Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis is seductive and charming as Harrison Hill, says Foley. Although Bruce Willis is probably best-known as an action star, Foley has always had an affinity for the actors work in thrillers. When Bruce is doing straight dramatic acting, hes very effective, says Foley. He came in, put on the right clothes, and became this character the powerful, arrogant, lustful head of an ad agency.

I dont think any guy ever thinks of himself as a womanizer, says Willis. I think he loves women, hes at the height of his career as a captain of the advertising industry, and he doesnt judge himself. Im in my own middle age now, and I still get a big kick out of life; I think Harrison Hill also gets a big kick out of his life. Part of that kick was the chance to work alongside Halle Berry.

I seldom get parts where I get to flirt so unabashedly, laughs Willis. Not a hard day at the office go to work and flirt with Halle Berry. I think its easy to come into this movie and say, This characters a womanizer, this characters a sycophant, this characters an upwardly mobile young woman. But everybody has something to hide, concludes Willis.

Giovanni Ribisi

Rounding out the cast is Giovanni Ribisi, who plays Rowenas techie Man Friday, Miles, who clearly has a crush on his boss one that Ro is all too happy to exploit. The way Giovanni plays the character, hes just happy to be in Halles presence, says Foley. I can understand that Id be Halles intern, too.

Ribisi considers Miles, like the other characters in Perfect Stranger, to be living a double life or, at least, wearing a mask. Hes the Iago character hes titillated by being manipulative, says the actor. Like Halles and Bruces characters, theres a dark underside to him, and I think thats universal; I dont think thats to be criticized.

Every character in this film has a secret and a different motivation that drives them to find truth, says Goldsmith-Thomas. Miles is a puzzler–he wont stop until all the pieces fit. Interestingly enough, Giovanni is the same way. He worked on his character tirelessly, adding dimension, humanity, and pathos. I loved watching him become Miles. I loved working with him.

Ribisi was attracted to the role by the screenplays morally ambiguous storyline. In movies, Ribisi says, weve historically tended to focus on whats good and whats evil, but that becomes so black and white. In the rehearsal process for this film, we were talking about the fact that were trying to get away from that people are more complicated. Everybody has their demons.

Halle Berry on James Foley

The great thing about James Foley, from an actors perspective, is that hes so intuitive about when a performance is working, says Berry. When you do something real, something good, something organic, he has a real, good, organic response. Thats inspiring it makes you feel like youll go wherever he wants to go because hes so enthusiastic about it. When its not right, he doesnt have that reaction hell say, Okay, that was good. But lets do it again, and youll know.

New York as Character

James Foley found filming in New York to be blissful. I was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Staten Island, and twenty years ago I thought Id be going to NYU Film School but instead I went to U.S.C. and I stayed in California. But the whole time I was growing up in Staten Island, although I didnt know I was going to be a filmmaker, I knew I would leave the island, and that Id move into the city to do something. It was unexpectedly thrilling to spend a year in New York shooting and editing this movie. I felt more me as a director than I ever have because I was born there and my siblings were there; theyd come to the set and see me filming, not some guy whod grown up in California.

Foley even enjoyed the crowds of paparazzi who flocked to the set for outdoor scenes. During a sequence taking place in front of the venerable Ansonia Hotel apartments, where Halle Berrys character lives, he exited the building and saw a swarm of paparazzi. Wondering what celebrity was in the immediate vicinity, he suddenly realizedit was the star of his movie they had shown up for.

New York is very much a character in Perfect Stranger, and it lends itself perfectly to the voyeuristic themes of the movie, says Goldsmith-Thomas. The film is about what we see and what we oversee and what better place to do that than a city where you live on top of each other. In many instances, peoples lives become your view. Harrison Hills ad agency, H2A, is above it all it looks down on the city and wants everyone to look up at it. Ros apartment is in the middle of the world as she looks out, others look in. Miless apartment is underground its the place you bury your secrets.

Hills spare, cutting-edge offices are mirrored in the chic restaurants where he and Ro meet, which include the stylish Manhattan watering holes Asia de Cuba and Sapa. Ros sphere is an earthier one, as seen in her older, rambling Upper West Side apartment, the cluttered newspaper office where she works, and the neighborhood bars and cafs where she hangs out with Miles and her editor. Meanwhile, Miles occupies another world entirely: a seedy, cramped West Village apartment in chaotic disarray.

7 World Trade Center

The most striking location of all was surely the newly-completed 7 World Trade Center, the companys home base for three weeks as the site of Harrison Hills offices. Designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill and developed and owned by Silverstein Properties, it is the first of the new buildings on the former World Trade Center site to have been be completed. In fact, it was only barely finished by the time the Perfect Stranger production moved in to take over its 25th floor. The sites wraparound views of Lower Manhattan, the Hudson River, and New Jersey, all of which are visible in the finished film, were stunning. In addition, Groom created an opulent, angular, highly contemporary look for the offices and their furnishings.

This beautiful new building, with its highly refined character, seemed to us to be just right for Harrison Hill, says the production designer. The original dcor on that floor was kind of slick, white, with almost futuristic detailing to it. We added contrasting textures which I would certainly describe as industrial chic found objects, old factory objects, very raw and natural material like steel and concrete. And, in fact, we exposed some of the existing surfaces in the building, surfaces that will eventually be covered over once more. We had visited a lot of advertising agencies, and we took elements from all of those ideas that we found in all of those places. We tried to create something that was very much an open office plan, something that would encourage free-flowing creative ideas. And you see that in a lot of the ad agencies today.

Among the many New York City locations used in Perfect Stranger were the ornate Cipriani catering space on 42nd St. across from Grand Central Station (originally a huge 1920s bank), the Hotel Gansevoort in the trendy Meatpacking District, the historic bar Chumleys in Greenwich Village; Riverside Park, Queens Supreme Civil Court, Coler-Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, and the massive meeting rooms and corridors of such downtown municipal buildings as One Centre Street and the original U.S. Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian). For Ros newspaper offices, an entire floor of New Yorks Spanish-language daily El Diario was utilized.

Depicting the Online World

In addition to the city of New York, of course, there is another world that provides a setting for Perfect Stranger the online world of chat rooms in which everyone can be anyone. Perfect Stranger is about what I think is becoming a near-crisis of how human beings interact with each other, says Foley. Essentially, weve become strangers to each other. Families have broken up; they dont talk to each other; members move away to other parts of the country. So people dont have much of a support group around them. The internet has become a potential connecting thread for strangers to meet each other. Its very attractive in that way; its much easier to meet someone by typing on a computer than to do it face to face. That need to connect is what really fuels Perfect Strangers story all the way through. The inherent danger and drama of it all is that these are real strangers. You dont know who anybody really is on the Net, and they may turn out to be someone you didnt suspect.

According to Goldsmith-Thomas, The anonymity of the Internet is a very seductive narcotic. The rules are different online. Truth is different online. And normal behavior is redefined. The more we interconnect the world, the more disconnected we become. And sometimes, when our real world intersects with our virtual world, the result can be dangerous.

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