Before 'Fifty Shades,' How '9 1/2 Weeks' Director Put S&M Onscreen

menage a trois Illo - P 2015
Illustration by: Zohar Lazar

menage a trois Illo - P 2015

"I sort of join in, like a menage a trois," says director Adrian Lyne of his "cheerleader" M.O. when filming sex scenes, adding that stars Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke had great chemistry: "Otherwise it wouldn't have been any good."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Thirty years before Fifty Shades of Grey, another risque love story shocked (and titillated) movie audiences. Shot in 1984 by English director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful), 9½ Weeks starred Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger as a pair of yuppies — he a Wall Street arbitrageur, she a SoHo art gallery employee — who embark upon a sadomasochistic affair. The games begin innocently enough (in one classic scene, Rourke feeds a blindfolded Basinger everything from chocolate sauce to jalapeno peppers) but quickly turn to darker, more disturbing psychosexual role-playing (involving horsewhips, "pretend" rape and Basinger in a fake mustache).

When a heavily truncated version reached U.S. theaters in 1986, the MGM film tanked at the box office ($6.7 million) and was eviscerated by critics (not just critics — Basinger told The New York Times shortly after its release that she'd been traumatized shooting the film). But by making S&M look chic, safety-proofing it for mainstream audiences, 9 ½ Weeks struck a nerve. Within a few years, thanks to VHS rentals of a recut version, Lyne's bomb became a kinky cult hit. THR spoke with the 73-year-old director at his home above Beverly Hills to ask about rumors that Rourke and Basinger actually had sex onscreen ("No, they never f—ed") and find out how Lyne got his leading lady to crawl on all fours ("It wasn't manipulation — it was trying to help").

When it first came out, 9½ Weeks wasn't warmly received.

When we previewed it, people were absolutely enraged. Sometimes half of the theater would empty, and they'd be yelling at the screen. There was one occasion when it was actually frightening — I was sitting there with a line of sweating executives and I went and hid in the projection box. I thought to myself, "I don't want to be there at the end." But then I'd see the same people come back for the next preview. I went over to them and asked, "If you were so upset and angry about it, why would you come back to be angry again?" One of them said, "We want to understand it." Strange, right? It was shocking to me. Men were sort of threatened by it. But women were more open-minded. Maybe they're more adventurous. Maybe they're braver. A lot of actresses whom I've met over the years — Penelope Cruz, who saw it growing up in Spain — have gone on and on and on about it, saying how they were just fascinated in their adolescence by the film.

Basinger and Rourke weren't household names back then. Was there resistance to casting them?

People didn't want to use Mickey — he wasn't an obvious leading man. But he makes everything fun. That scene where he's eating spaghetti — I've never seen anybody put that much spaghetti in their mouth. Kim was my first choice. She had the vulnerability.

That scene in front of the refrigerator when he blindfolds her and feeds her different foods, was that tricky to shoot?

Actors are always so careful about when they eat in a scene. They put minute bits in their mouth because they don't want to be heard [chewing], which is so silly. I remember Kim during the eating scene saying: "I can't eat that shit. I'm just going to eat melon balls." And then there was the honey — it's awful when you think about it. It's sticky, it's horrendous. But they managed to turn it into something erotic. You know, she's screaming bloody murder when this stuff's all over her. But then when he's smoothing it into her legs and her thighs and stuff, then it suddenly becomes an erotic thing. I had a terrible time cutting that scene until I found the track "Bread and Butter." Then suddenly it came alive. It became a montage, so it made it much easier to deal with the footage. I wanted it to be tactile. And I thought that was a nice mixture of fun, like children playing, really.

They had good chemistry?

Yeah, otherwise it wouldn't have been any good. Kim would say that when she kissed him, it was like kissing an ashtray. And he would put on Billy Idol, "Rebel Yell," deafeningly loud before a scene. I think he did it to piss her off. But when I did the test with them, I got a sense that she was excited by the movie.

Things have been written about how you manipulated Rourke and Basinger to get the performances you wanted.

Well, one thing I did was that they didn't speak at all offscreen. Because it was shot roughly in continuity, I thought it was interesting to let the relationship build on film. It wasn't manipulation; it was just to try to help. There was a scene where he's testing her — it got cut — and he wants her to take pills, essentially die for him. She doesn't know the pills are sugar. We started to shoot it, and she just looked too fresh. So I spoke to Mickey and said, "We've got to do something to break her down." So he grabbed her arm and wouldn't let go. She became angry then tearful. In the back of her mind, I'm sure she knew that it was to help her. And then she was marvelous.

Was it awkward to shoot the sex scenes?

Not really. I always did it with a minimum amount of people. I think it must be horrendous for two actors to be going at it in total silence, not knowing whether they're looking good, because it's a very vulnerable situation to begin with when you've got half your clothes off. So I'm a little bit like a cheerleader. I sort of join in, like a menage a trois. When I see something, I say: "Do it again! Do it again! That's marvelous!" You know, so they're not left with those aching silent pastures where all you hear is the grunting. I think it must be awful doing it in silence and sort of dreary, like in church or something.

Is there something you say to prep an actor?

I have to say if they've had a few drinks, it helps. It loosens things up. It's funny — you mentally count down the days until the love scene. You're thinking, "Oh f—, I've got to do that in two days' time." And the actors are doing the same thing. My job is to make it informal and as fun as it can be. I abhor serious, statuesque sex, which it practically always is. Errorless. I can't stand that.