'Wild Things' at 25: Director John McNaughton on the steamy sex scene he could never make today
The 'Wild Things' director says he wouldn't be able to make the threesome with Neve Campbell, Denise Richards and Matt Dillon now
For 25 years and counting, John McNaughton's sweaty Florida-set thriller, Wild Things, has kept viewers hot and bothered with its blend of steamy sex scenes and crazy plot twists. But in a new interview with Yahoo Entertainment, the filmmaker says that one particular twist proved too wild to make the final cut of the cult favorite. "When I first the read the script, I was like, 'I didn't see that coming!'" McNaughton remembers now of the deleted reveal. "But we couldn't do it."
Premiering in theaters on March 20, 1998, Wild Things features the unlikely threesome of Neve Campbell, Denise Richards and Matt Dillon pulling off a crazy extortion scheme under the nose of Kevin Bacon's dogged Miami police detective. In the final act, though, it turns out that Bacon and Dillon have been in cahoots the whole time. Not only that, but screenwriter Stephen Peters penned a hot shower scene that reveals them as lovers who planned to screw over Dillon's teen girlfriends and take the money for themselves.
"In the original version of the scene, Matt walks into his bathroom to take a shower and there's Kevin," McNaughton recalls. "They were supposed to look each other up and down and then wham — go at it." But just before cameras rolled, the director says that one of the actors — he declines to specify which — made it clear he didn't want to film the scene as written, and McNaughton had to let that particular twist go. "I love surprise, and I love stuff that I don't see coming," he says. "But in that moment it was like 'You win some, you lose some; we're moving on.'"
For the record, both Bacon and Dillon have talked about the abandoned homoerotic plot twist in the past. Speaking with Total Film in 2005, Bacon said that he thought the reveal was "great," and blamed the film's financiers for its deletion. "[They] didn't like the idea of men making out." But in his own Total Film interview that same year, Dillon suggested he was more than happy to kiss the scene goodbye. "I was relieved when they got rid of that scene," the actor said. "Kevin seemed pretty attached to it, though!"
Not for nothing, but a hint of the actual nature of Bacon and Dillon's relationship does survive in the final cut of Wild Things. McNaughton directs viewers to a flashback scene that appears during the closing credits where Dillon encounters Bacon's cop in a dive bar. "Neve preps him, and then Matt goes inside and sits next to Kevin and says, 'Hey could I buy you a drink?' The next time you watch that scene, watch it closely, because [their relationship] is there. I always called it 'acting twice' with the cast, because what their characters were saying was never really what they were doing."
The same-sex sex scene that did make it into the final cut is the aquatic makeout session with Campbell and Richards — although that sequence was initially no less fraught behind the scenes. Campbell had a "no-nudity" clause in her contract and Richards's representatives were intimately involved in deciding how much of their client's body would be shown onscreen in both that sequence as well as the famous threesome that added Dillon into the mix. In her 2017 memoir, Richards remembers that she and the Party of Five star downed a bottle of tequila before shooting the pool scene and McNaughton confirms that account.
"What's so often the case is that everyone is nervous going into scenes like that, but once they get there, the clothes start flying off," he says, adding that both actresses were entirely comfortable and professional throughout the filming of the pool scene. "All those fears often fall away. And our director of photography, Jeffrey Kimball, knew how to make them look fabulous. No one could make women look more beautiful than him. Of course, we did have crew members we'd never seen before suddenly having a reason to try and be on set that day! But we'd boot them off to be fair to the actors."
If he were making Wild Things today, McNaughton knows that an intimacy coordinator would be one of the crew members required to be on set for sequences like the pool scene — and that's a collaboration he'd welcome provided it was with the right person. "I haven't worked with an intimacy coordinator yet," he notes. "It's sort of like when you get a dialect coach: some of these people can be control freaks and that's awful for a director. But if you get a good one I'm sure it's fine."
Even with the careful guidance of an intimacy coordinator, the director is well aware that the threesome would likely be impossible to film today — mainly because both of the female characters are supposed to be in high school, while Dillon is their adult guidance counselor. "It's impossible to know for sure, but probably not," McNaughton says when asked if he thinks he could get away with that kind of sequence now in a major studio production. "Maybe in 20 years, the pendulum will swing back again, but now it's swung pretty far in the other direction."
"I will say that we played it for the lurid aspect, but also the fun," the director adds. "You go to movies like Wild Things to see this kind of story told, and I didn't want to back off. When I read the script, the one thing that really clicked with me was the human behavior — as far-fetched as this all might seem, it felt like it could actually happen. Especially in a place like South Florida!"
To celebrate 25 years of Wild Things, McNaughton shared some other wild stories from the set, including the new million-dollar ending he shot just before the film's release and how Bacon ended up gifting audiences with one of the most famous full monty scenes ever put to celluloid.
Robert Downey Jr. nearly played Matt Dillon's part
Prior to helming Wild Things, McNaughton had made a name for himself as the director of acclaimed but little-seen films like 1986's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and 1993's Mad Dog and Glory. But he hadn't yet made a box office hit, so when the opportunity to direct Peters's script came his way, he had one main goal. "I wanted to make a commercial movie," he says now.
Naturally, that meant booking commercial stars, including Scream queen Campbell — who was originally approached to play Richards's part as wicked little rich girl Kelly before deciding that she'd rather portray Kelly's trailer trash counterpart, Suzie. "I had made the assumption off of Party of Five that she'd be good for the rich kid," McNaughton recalls with a laugh. "But Neve told me, 'I'm from a rough and tumble part of Canada. A lot of my relatives don't have all their teeth!'"
In addition to Campbell, Robert Downey Jr. was another early Wild Things recruit — the producers hired the future Iron Man star to play Kelly and Suzie's lover and accomplice, Sam Lombardo. "We'd met with him and everything; it was a done deal," McNaughton remembers. It was a done deal... until it wasn't. At that point in his career, Downey was still struggling with serious substance abuse issues that made him an insurance liability for a studio production. It didn't help that the actor was difficult to reach as the start of filming approached.
"He had this real character as a sponsor who — as so often happens in Hollywood — had a little more control over Downey's movements than he probably should have," McNaughton says. "Downey was in Savannah, and we were in Miami, and the insurance company wanted a huge amount of money to insure him, which the studio wasn't happy about. So I said, 'I'll fly to Savannah and make sure everything's cool, and then we can proceed.' But his go-between kept screwing around! I was ready to get on the plane, and I couldn't finalize the meeting so the studio said, 'We're going with Matt Dillon.'"
In hindsight, McNaughton thinks that casting switch actually benefitted the production — and not just because they were spared higher insurance premiums. After all, Downey was and still is too much of a live wire as a performer to convincingly portray the patsy that Sam ultimately turns out to be. "As my dear mother used to say, 'Everything happens for a reason,'" the director says. "Matt was a better choice for that particular role."
Going the full Bacon
While Bacon and Dillon's homoerotic plot twist may have been dropped from the final cut of Wild Things, the Footloose star still gave audiences a big surprise. When Bacon turns around to greet Dillon in the shower, he's fully naked below the waist — a bit of full-frontal nudity that McNaughton swears is accidental. "The idea was that Matt would grab a towel and throw it at him," he remembers. "We did multiple takes where you never saw any full frontal on Kevin. But around the eighth take, the towel thing didn't work. Matt threw it, and Kevin missed so there he was in all his glory!"
McNaughton still didn't intend to use that take, until his regular film editor, Elena Maganini, read him the riot act in the editing room. "I went to see our latest cut, and there was Take 8 of that scene, which was not supposed to be there. I told her, 'Elena, we can't use that take.' And she said, 'It's not fair! You guys have scene after after of topless babes. This is one for us.'"
The director was persuaded by that argument, but still felt like he had to give Bacon final cut, so to speak. "Kevin was friends with Wild Things producer, Steve Jones, so he called him and asked if he could use that take. What I heard from Steve is that Kevin asked, 'How do I look?' Steve said, 'You look fine,' and so Kevin went 'No problem.' He's not a particularly squeamish guy."
In his 2005 Total Film interview, Bacon confirmed that he wasn't bothered by having his accidental full frontal flash included in the movie. "It really wasn't that big a deal," the actor said at the time. Bacon even humbly downplayed the praise his penis's towering performance continues to receive, joking: "That's just the camera putting on a few pounds."
A million dollar ending
Think Wild Things is a film without heroes? Think again: when the last rug is pulled and the last double cross is crossed, working class Suzie proves to be the final girl standing and claims the $8.5 million payday as her own. In the film's final scene — which plays out during the closing credits — Suzie meets up with Bill Murray's sleazy on-the-take lawyer, Kenneth Bowden, in a tropical setting where the money officially changes hands. According to McNaughton, that moment was dropped into the film at the last minute when producer Peter Guber felt that something crucial was missing.
"He knows what's commercial, right?" the director says of Guber, whose list of hits includes Jonathan Lynn's Clue, Tim Burton's Batman and Barry Levinson's Rain Man. "So he said, 'The test audiences love Neve and they love Bill Murray. Give me a new ending with the two of them.'" McNaughton put his head together with screenwriter Kem Nunn — who he had specifically brought in to add more of a Florida vibe to Peters's script — and devised the finale seen in the movie.
While it's implied that Campbell and Murray are meeting somewhere in the Caribbean, the scene was actually shot in Long Beach, with the production putting tropical white sand over the existing California sand and constructing shacks to give the setting a more exotic look. McNaughton says that Guber personally covered the nearly million-dollar cost of the added scene. "When we re-tested the movie with that scene, the audience loved it," the director says. "Guber knew it was what the movie needed."
McNaughton also loved a second opportunity to direct Murray, who he had previously cast very much against type in Mad Dog and Glory. "Somebody else was going to play the lawyer, but Bill and I had become friends and he called me saying, 'I heard through the grapevine that you're making this movie. Got anything in it for me?' I thought about it for a minute and then told him: 'Actually, yeah: I've got a great part for you."
There was almost a (real) Wild Things sequel
Wild Things grossed $30 million during its theatrical run, and that tally has grown substantially over the ensuing 25 years courtesy of home entertainment sales and cable airings. The movie was lucrative enough that it spawned an entire direct-to-video franchise consisting of three sequels — none of which McNaughton had any involvement in. "Those movies have nothing to do with me," he says, making it clear he doesn't consider them true descendants of his original film.
In 2006, though, he and Peters came close to re-teaming with Campbell for a movie called Backstabbers, which he says would have continued Suzie's story years later. "It was a pretty cool script," he recalls. "She was grown up, and I think she had a kid with somebody. Bill Murray's character also had a kid, and both kids were up to no good. It was Wild Things, but a generation later. It was hard to do a direct sequel because everyone else was dead!"
Backstabbers ultimately never made it into production, but McNaughton still thinks that a younger creative team could revive Wild Things as a streaming series. "It's such a no-brainer," he says. "You can use the characters that are still alive or just reboot it and make it about young, beautiful people in Florida up to no good at every juncture. Murder, sex, bad behavior — come on! It doesn't even have to be a great show. People are gonna watch it."
Wild Things isn't camp... but it is trash
Upon its release, plenty of critics described Wild Things as "trash" in the pejorative sense of the word. But McNaughton credits the late Roger Ebert with understanding that the film is a prime example of the artistic definition of trash. "I didn't go to film school — I went to art school," the director explains. "My goal was always to be an artist, and they were much wilder than the average film nerd who spent their whole lives in revival houses. We spent our lives hanging out with hoodlums and criminals in disreputable places watching people do horrible things: that's an artist's life to me."
In art school, McNaughton also studied the work of pioneers like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who knowingly mixed high art with so-called low art like comic books and advertisements. "Warhol made a whole movie called Trash," he says, referring to the artist's 1970 film that follows a day in the life of a New York junkie. "He was trying to use trash as an element in artistic process." McNaughton attempted a similar feat with Wild Things, which is why he profoundly disagrees with critics who try to frame the film — even in celebratory terms — as high camp. "I don't care for camp," he says. "That's ironic humor and Wild Things isn't trying to be ironic. It's an easy default."
"I was trying to make a commercial movie and there are two elements that make a commercial movie: sex and violence," he continues, with a knowing laugh. "So with Wild Things, I was like, 'Okay, America, you want sex and you want violence — here you go! How much of this can you take?'"
Wild Things is available to rent or purchase on most VOD services