Dating in the dark
New York City has provided the backdrop for many a romantic film. But can Down To You stars Freddie Prinze Jr. and Julia Stiles find love in the city that never sleeps -- or shuts up?
Freddie Prinze Jr. is out on a date with Julia Stiles. It's nearly midnight, and they're having a tender fountain-side conversation under a dramatically illuminated arch that borders Manhattan's Central Park. Pedestrians stop and stare at the lovebirds, who are oblivious to everything but each other. It's a moment of pure romance -- until the spell is suddenly broken.
"It's fun to stay at the Y! M! C! A!"
"Cut!" director Kris Isacsson yells, annoyed by the interruption. The actors roll their eyes. Julia pulls down a jacket over her glamorous Dolce & Gabbana dress.
The cast and crew have been here since 9 P.M. on the chilly June night, trying to film a pivotal scene near the end of Down To You, Miramax's upcoming romantic comedy. (The title is taken from a Joni Mitchell song about first love.) Feddie's and Julia's characters, Al and Imogen, are revisiting the places that meant a lot to them back when they were college sweethearts -- and flirting with the ideas of trying again. "They're both feeling the water," Freddie explains. "I'm trying to protect myself, and she's doing the same thing. So we're avoiding telling each other how we really feel."
Unfortunately, this particular meaningful spot is on Columbus Circle, one of New York City's most traffic-heavy areas. To keep zooming cars from drowning out the scene, each shot is held up until the light turns red. Meanwhile, crew members have to persuade swarms of pedestrians to hold up (and shut up) until given the go-ahead.
Even so, Freddie says, the efforts are virtually useless. "This is the loudest city in the world. You don't even want to try the first ten takes, because you know there's going to be a bus, or a taxi, or a homeless dude running through the scene going, 'Aaaahhh, whatcha doin'?" Right now, the problem is a wedding reception in a nearby building, where the DJ segues from the Village People's disco classic "Y.M.C.A." to Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca."
Trying to film in the Big Apple could make anyone's life crazy, with the constant noise, disruptions and countless girls desperate to meet Down To You's 23-year-old leading man. But you can't manufacture the city's charm on a soundstage. "I really wanted to have the character of New York in the movie," says first-time director Isacsson.
For the fountain scene, he has chosen a spot familiar to both tourists and residents alike -- including 18-year-old Julia, who still lives downtown with her parents. "My school is two blocks in that direction," she says, pointing uptown toward the Professional Children's School. "I'm having high school flashbacks. I used to eat lunch sitting on this fountain." Isacsson tells the cast and crew to break for a meal while he finds someone to convince the newlyweds to can the DJ and start their honeymoon already.
Everyone heads to an abandoned building across the street, where they quickly eat a buffet meal at cafeteria-style tables. By now they're used to having "lunch" in the middle of the night and coming home at dawn. "At first I was like 'This is cool. It's like a slumber party,'" Julia says. "But I got over that. You feel like a vampire."
The odd hours are ideal for Freddie's "weird and strange" character, though. "People like Al because he's out there," the actor says. There are even a few unusual scenes in which Al converses with a spider -- not the sort of behavior you'd expect from Zach, the high school big shot he played in She's All That. Another distinguishing factor: "Al's not cool," Freddie says. "He's more like me."
Julia, meanwhile, was drawn to the movie's theme. "I'm sort of in the middle of my first love right now," she says. "That's what appealed to me about this script: It's about how surreal that experience is.... It's so unexplainable. I think about what's going to happen once I fall out of love -- or when he falls out of love with me. That's dealt with too."
The actress knows what it's like to find love on the set (her boyfriend is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, her costar in 10 Things I Hate About You), so she had a heart-to-heart talk with Freddie early on to rule out any possibility of an on-screen fling. "We joked about how it's weird when people think you can cheat on your significant other on a movie set -- like it doesn't count," she says. "We both know that's not how we feel."
Still, filming Al and Imogen's intense love scenes was tough for both of them. (Although Freddie and actress Kimberly McCulough were together while Down To You was in production, the two are no longer a couple.) "You just hope the woman you're working with is professional, and most of the time they are," he says, then jokes, "Personally, I wish I could be making action movies where I didn't have to kiss. It would be a lot easier if I could just kill people."
So how does Freddie get along with Julia? When he tries to explain he laughs at how clueless he is about actresses. "You should have to have a passport to get to know them, because [being with] each one is literally like going to a different country," he says. "To step into their world, you have to learn to speak their language, learn their culture."
Apparently, Julia speaks a different language than Rachel Leigh Cook, who played his love interest in She's All That. "Whereas Rachel is kind of Zen and at peace with the universe, Julia is very New York -- a tough girl," Freddie says. "You have to break down that wall and see who she is on the inside." His strategy? Practical jokes. "I figured eventually she'd stop yelling at me and start laughing" he says. "In the end, she tried to figure out ways to get back at me, which was good. But you can't out-practical joke me. I'm too slick." His latest trick involved putting toothpaste in costar Rosario Dawson's shoes after she toilet-papered her trailer. (The actress from Light it Up filmed her small role several weeks ago, as did Ashton Kutcher of That 70's Show).
Julia, always the good sport, says that she finds Freddie's "little-kid side" endearing: "He was telling me, 'This is the best book I've ever read!' and it was, like, Spider-Man. But I love that about him: He's not trying to be supercool."
The two leads may be the only actors on the set right now, but earlier this evening the place was bustling. Costars Shawn Hatosy (Outside Providence), Zak Orth (In & Out) and Selma Blair (Cruel Intentions) dropped by to say hi. So did Joaquin Phoenix, whose new movie, The Yards was also shot in New York, and Conrad Jackson, a friend of Freddie's from his high school years in Albuquerque. Freddie says, "I was dying [of loneliness]. I was like, 'Please come visit me.'"
As the group hung out on the set, Shawn teased Selma about the jade bracelet she had just given Julia as a high school graduation gift, calling it a "desperate" attempt to befriend the star. Then a fan approached her for a picture. Sensing his clulessness, Selma spoke up. "You have no idea who I am, do you?" she said. When he (erroneously) pegged her as the costar of the movie Two Girls and a Guy, Selma wailed, "I don't even look like Natasha Gregson Wagner!" He got his snapshot anyway, and Selma got the last word: "Usually people think I'm a scrunched-up Liv Tyler."
Freddie too has rubbed elbows with Big Apple fans. "I'll be jogging," he says, "and people are like 'Hey Freddie Junior, how's it going over there?' Or, 'What was that sequel to I Know What You Did...? It was a piece of crap!'"
By 3 A.M., things have quieted down -- except for the occasional cabbie yelling some variation of "Yo! Wassup?" while waiting at the stoplight. Having finally finished filming their conversation beside the fountain, Freddie and Julia are on to a poignant scene in which Imogen hails a taxicab and says good-bye to Al. Since this is the 33rd of 37 shooting days, real good-byes are fast approaching. "What are you doing after this?" Julia asks Freddie as they prepare for another take. "You going to stay for a while, enjoy the city?" He shakes his head. "No, I have to leave for my next movie."
The day after Down To You wraps, Freddie will be heading north to Vancouver, where he'll woo another actress (Monica Potter) and four models in another romantic comedy called Head Over Heels. Five leading ladies? He's better remember to pack his passport.
Article by Stephanie Williams
Originally published in the February 2000 issue of Teen People Magazine