WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — `THIS is the story of a man who thinks he has everything - until he makes a wrong turn in the Bronx while driving around with his mistress. Then he loses it all.'' Brian De Palma's description of ``The Bonfire of the Vanities,'' adapted from Tom Wolfe's best-selling novel, is delightfully deadpan. It doesn't even begin to tell the whole story. You can't capture a De Palma film with only a bare plot line.
``Bonfire,'' no less than ``Carrie,'' ``Sisters,'' ``The Phantom of the Paradise,'' ``Scarface,'' or ``Casualties of War,'' is full of nightmarish, overheated imagery. It depicts a world of yawning spaces, tilting heights, and elongated, nightmarish figures and faces.
The Fifth Avenue townhouses, museums, and Wall Street interior blaze with a white-hot intensity. The Bronx streets, by contrast, flare fitfully at night with an infernal, ruddy glow. They are lost worlds, lunar landscapes, where people lurch and stumble, their faces flushed with the heat of an approaching conflagration.
De Palma slouches back into the couch of his suite in the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood. His appearance contradicts the chic gloss of his movie. He wears an olive-drab Army shirt and baggy trousers. He speaks spasmodically, reluctantly, one hand hovering near his mouth. His almost furtive manner recalls a description of him given me earlier by cast member Kim Cattrall: ``He's a munchkin kind of guy - rather secretive. You never really know what's going on.''
He pauses, but his eyes are on me all the time. We are talking about the difficulties he and scriptwriter Michael Cristofer faced in adapting Wolfe's mammoth novel to a two-hour screenplay.
``Compression is the key to all this,'' he says at last. ``We had to combine several characters into one, lose a lot of the background information on most of them, cut lots of incidents, and keep a fast pace all the time. But then, you can make up a lot of that with your pictures, can't you?''
That distinctive visual style alternately elongates and compacts the characters and the sets. Low-angle shots make some characters, like the Reverend Bacon (John Hancock), rear up toward the heavens; high-angle views suggest that Sherman McCoy and his wife (Tom Hanks and Kim Cattrall) are insects about to be crushed by the collapsing walls and ceilings of their townhouse. The interiors of the bond-trading offices on Wall Street seem to stretch miles away to a distant vanishing point. People and props seem to bulge in the middle of the frame, like balloons that are expanding and threatening to explode.
``That's the kind of look you get with wide-angle lenses,'' De Palma explains. ``This whole world is a hustle; it's for sale. Like those pictures you see in realty advertisements on TV and in magazines. All those huge rooms and interiors. But it's a lie. It's those lenses that distort everything and make them seem bigger, longer, higher. I worked it all out with my cameraman, Vilmos Zsigmond, and production designer Richard Sylbert. I wanted this world to look like an Architectural Digest view of Versailles.''
HE chuckles softly. ``You know, New York itself has got to be one of the most `overshot' places in the world. So we decided to make it all look different. For example, I didn't want to open up with just another helicopter shot over the New York skyline. Please. So we found a huge stone gargoyle on top of the Chrysler building. It fills out the frame like some kind of grim guardian of the city.
``Another time we had to shoot an airplane landing at Kennedy. I mean - have you ever seen an airplane land in a De Palma film? It's just the stupidest kind of shot, you know. But my second-unit director, Eric Schwab, got six cameras out there, and we ended up with a shot of the Concorde against the sunset that makes it all look like a descent into hell.''
Amid all this flamboyant distortion and rich imagery, you wonder where the actors fit in. As if in response to all that stretching and squeezing, Hanks had to wear elevator shoes, and Cattrall had to go on a liquid protein diet to further constrict her already slender body.
`IT was that `social X-ray' look,'' says Cattrall, a trifle ruefully. ``Thin. You have to see the bones through the skin. That's Judy McCoy. And Brian was always saying, `Humor, more humor.' He wanted that heightened, too. More. We would start at one level, and then he'd want still more, like fanning a flame.
``He was like a chef who works and tastes and then puts a little more spice here and more garlic there. It's an exciting way to work.''
Tom Hanks agrees. ``He told me he wanted things to be as absurd and as heightened as `Dr. Strangelove.' So we go to it. And do things over again millions of times. You keep banging it out until he's pleased. But you won't always know when that happens. I mean, he's not a chummy guy. He doesn't throw his arms around you and say, `How are you, you big lug?' It's not a clubhouse atmosphere with Brian. But that's OK.''
De Palma is the first to admit he took a chance with his concepts of ``The Bonfire of the Vanities.'' But it is all a part, he insists, of keeping the ``edge'' that made his counterculture masterpieces of the late 1960s - films like ``Greetings'' and ``Hi, Mom!'' - such outrageous, tacky fun.
``You have to keep it up to speed,'' he says, eyes brightening. ``If you allow something to just hang there on the screen, then the audience will start to study it. And once that happens - when they ask, wait a minute, is it all real? - then you're dead.''