During rehearsals, the two actors had trouble finding the chemistry they needed for their scenes together. To better understand what each needed from the other's role, William Hurt suggested they try an experiment where they would switch roles, with Hurt as Valentin and Raul Julia as Molina. The role-switching rehearsal went so well that Hurt initially suggested to director Hector Babenco that they should switch parts for the film as well. Obviously, the switch did not occur, but Hurt states that it was a very useful experiment in helping them more fully understand their own characters.
William Hurt's Best Actor Oscar was the first Academy Award won by an actor for playing an openly gay character. Hurt is also seen in drag in this movie, the Oscar win being a rare occasion in which an Oscar for acting has been won with an actor in drag.
In an interview with National Public Radio, William Hurt stated that during a day off from production, he and a female companion were abducted at gunpoint by multiple gunmen in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was reportedly told to face a wall, at which point her was certain the gunman was going to execute both of them. Hurt refused and after a brief shouting exchange, all of the kidnappers left the scene. The incident was not reported to the production company at the time as he (Hurt) was certain that filming would be shut down, putting completion of the film in jeopardy.
William Hurt initially struggled with developing characterization and mannerisms for Luis, until he became inspired to portray the character not necessarily as a homosexual, but more like "a woman trapped in a man's body."
The original Broadway production of the musical "Kiss of the Spiderwoman" opened at the Broadhurst Theater in New York on May 3, 1993, ran for 904 performances and won the 1993 Tony Awards for the Best Musical, Book and Score.
The film was made and released about nine years after its source novel of the same name "Kiss of the Spider Woman" ("El Beso de la Mujer Araña") by Manuel Puig was first published in 1976. Argentinian author Puig adapted the book into a stage play in 1983 and this was first staged in the same 1985 year that this movie was first released. The novel was also adapted into a stage musical a decade later in 1993.
The name of the film's main movie-within-a-movie was "Her Real Glory". It was said to have been made by the Nazis in Germany during World War II and was both a wartime romance and a Nazi propaganda film.
According to the book" The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History" by J. Piazza & G. Kinn (2008), Burt Lancaster was originally offered the lead role of Luis Molina. Director Hector Babenco originally had felt that William Hurt was too well-built and handsome for the part.
Hector Babenco agonized all through rehearsals over how William Hurt would ever find the gay character in himself. To help Hurt tackle the part, and because author Manuel Puig was not available, Babenco put him with Patricio Bisso, who was set to play the small role of Molina's friend Greta and design the film's costumes. Bisso is gay, had been in jail himself, and was close to his mother, like Molina in many ways. Hurt toured Sao Paulo with him, often visiting gay cinemas, looking for clues to the character. Bisso got fed up translating the films for him and started making up the stories instead. Bisso later said Hurt used him as a "sacrificial lamb" for his process, playing cat and mouse games with him to get a sense of how Molina would react in similar circumstances. During one such session, Hurt took Bisso to a nice restaurant, but Bisso couldn't eat because Hurt's prodding and game-playing had made him cry.
Hector Babenco arranged for William Hurt and Raul Julia to meet people who had been victims of political torture, but Hurt decided at the last minute not to go and waited to hear what his co-star thought.
Tensions started early on in the process between William Hurt and Hector Babenco. David Weisman later remarked that Hurt had a wonderful mastery of language and spoke in "great metaphorical ellipses that are hard to follow even if English is your native language." For Babenco it was impossible. He became frustrated by Hurt talking "for hours" and learned to just nod and pretend to agree in order to keep the conversations relatively short.
By his own admission, William Hurt was already gaining a reputation for being difficult. He often pushed too hard and was not always diplomatic, but said, "Raul never saw any of the pushing I did as being offensive."
William Hurt and Raul Julia would work all hours, even coming in on Sundays. Later in the process, they went to the studio where the jail set was being constructed. According to Hurt, the crew stayed out of sight and just watched the actors rehearse for four hours, visibly touched that they put so much effort and passion into their work. "I don't know two men who got into each other's souls as thoroughly as these two guys," David Weisman said.
On a visit to William Hurt's dressing room, Hector Babenco found him in full make-up and costume, trying to get at the gist of the character. Babenco told him he had the body of a boxer and to use that to imagine himself as someone with his physique who wanted to be a very elegant dancer. The director told the "freaked out" star that when he understood the character from that contradiction, "then we'll talk about the ponytail, pancake, beauty mark," and the rest of the outward appearances.
To push William Hurt to find his feminine side, and also to loosen up his body and make him more flexible and fluid, Hector Babenco had him work with choreographer Mara Borba, who was set to play the Spider Woman. Hurt would walk behind her down the street, watching and analyzing her movements. Borba helped him throughout shooting as well, especially when he had trouble finding the right lightness. At one point, she suggested he take a scarf down from the wall and use it "to make believe your head is like a full moon floating high above the clouds."
Maria Borba became the bridge between William Hurt and Sonia Braga. Since Braga never went to the prison set to watch Hurt work as Molina, Borba would observe all his gestures and movements and bring them back to Braga when the film-within-the-film scenes were shot later so she could replicate them.
Manuel Puig came to Sao Paulo to work with Leonard Schrader on the script. He put a lot of humor back into the story and came up with the idea for how Molina would first be introduced to the audience, wrapping a towel around his head while he related the Nazi film story to Valentin.
Just days before principal photography began on the movie, William Hurt told Hector Babenco, "You've been very patient, and I have a surprise for you." On the first day of shooting, there was Molina, just as the director had hoped.
Principal photography took place between October 1983 and March 1984. The schedule was initially set for 60 days, but interiors took so much longer to shoot than planned, it ended up taking more than 100 days.
The filmmakers originally planned to use Cat People (1942) as one of the films Molina describes, just as he does in the novel, but they had trouble with Universal over the rights, forcing rewrites after shooting began to construct the fictional Nazi film.
There were constant revisions from Leonard Schrader and Manuel Puig throughout every day. William Hurt began to complain that he felt like he was working on a television soap opera, and tensions on set began to rise.
The relationship between William Hurt and Hector Babenco steadily deteriorated to the point where they didn't even speak to each other any more. Assistant Director Amilcar Monteiro Claro became the go-between, since he spoke both English and Brazilian Portuguese. Claro said the tension was terrible but actually good for the film because it helped Hurt with his performance.
According to Amilcar Monteiro Claro, William Hurt earned such respect and affection from the crew that they all accompanied him to the airport when his part in the shooting was done to bid him farewell. "He [won them over] with his personality and integrity, his sincerity and commitment to his work".
The producers were counting on a co-production deal with Gaumont to shoot the Nazi movie in Paris, but the French studio backed out at the last minute. This necessitated a lot of scrambling and re-budgeting to do the work in Buenos Aires, which has the most European feel of any South American city. But they couldn't even afford that, so they decided to use downtown Sao Paulo.
Choreographer Mara Borba was originally set to play the Spider Woman. (Shots exist of her in costume.) At the last minute, Sofia Braga suggested that she play the part since it would cause confusion for the audience to see her as Valentin's girlfriend and Leni Lamaison but not the third female. She called Borba first with the idea before taking it to Babenco. Borba said she was sad at first to lose the part but realized Braga was right and that playing the part was much less important than her true role in the film, which was her collaboration with William Hurt.
With many hours of footage in the can, Dan Weisman became worried about Hector Babenco's ability to handle the edit since his English was still not very good, so he stepped in to oversee post-production. By the time principal photography wrapped, Weisman had culled through the footage and reduced the usable takes to three hours of film.
The budget was almost entirely used on shooting and there wasn't much left for post. In addition, the producers had only planned on two months to complete the work, but editing in fact went on almost a year in a dismal little cement block building in Los Angeles. The most difficult task was figuring out how to integrate the fantasy film segments into the main story.
In July 1984, Hector Babenco went back to Sao Paulo to supervise work on the score. While there, he discovered he had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and had to begin a long treatment process. Dan Weisman continued editing in California.
Initial screenings did not go well. Raul Julia was furious after watching the first cut: "What happened to the movie? What happened to all our great work?!" After seven months of post-production, the film was sent to the New York Film Festival. The selection committee rejected it without even watching the whole movie. William Hurt wasn't too concerned about this until he saw the first cut himself and realized why they dismissed it so abruptly. The fantasy film sequences were too long and overwhelmed the story of the relationship between the two men. He wanted to buy the print and burn it so it would never be released.
Dan Weisman drove the footage across country to New York to re-cut it and work on sound. There was no insurance and no back-up footage. If something had happened on the road, the film might have been lost.
William Hurt and Raul Julia spent five weeks in post-production dubbing the film. This gave Leonard Schrader the chance to rewrite most of the off-screen dialogue for the actors to record, giving the film a totally different feel and bringing the original intentions back into focus. After 14 months of post-production, the film was finished.
Even with the reworking, the film was rejected by distributors everywhere. The producers submitted it to the Cannes Film Festival. It was selected on one condition, that more editing be done to tighten up the ending. The re-cutting was done on the run, and the finished product barely made it back to Cannes in time for a screening. In fact, Dan Weisman delivered it with the sound on separate magnetic tracks because there was no time to make a composite print.
At first, Hector Babenco was not convinced about William Hurt's ability. From the moment he got out of his taxi in New York and saw Hurt, he thought, "This man, too American for my Latin American eyes, a Montana boy could never play this man I love." [Hurt, in fact, was from Washington, D.C., and trained at Juilliard.] Suddenly, after the first page and a half of the read-through, Hurt was like a wounded bird, and tears came to the director's eyes. He was convinced Hurt was up to the task.