With ‘Off the Rails’, the late Kelly Preston joins a poignant list of actors who filmed movies right before their deaths, including Tupac Shakur, Heath Ledger and Aaliyah. Adam White talks to filmmakers and producers about having an actor’s final performance in their hands
When the actor Kelly Preston told the West End super-producer Bill Kenwright that she wanted to star in a new movie he was putting together, she had one stipulation. She was sick, she told him, and wouldn’t be healthy enough for the film to qualify for its normal kind of insurance. “She said, ‘I’m going to get better, but I can’t have a big medical,’” Kenwright remembers. Her breast cancer, which she had been privately fighting for a year at that point, also meant the film would likely not receive a “completion bond”, or the standard guarantee that it would be finished. Kenwright was willing to put it aside and take the risk. “I said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it without one.’ I just wanted her to make the film. And I suppose a conversation like that bonds you. Nobody else knew, she didn’t tell anyone else. [On set], you would never have known.”
Preston, who had starred in films including For Love of the Game and Twins and was married to the actor John Travolta, died last July. Off the Rails, the sprightly comedy that would end up becoming her final movie, is being released this week. It joins a line of posthumous films, suddenly rendered far more affecting than previously imagined. Kenwright is also the latest in a long line of producers and filmmakers handed the least enviable of tasks: left holding a project forever cemented as a beloved actor’s last, their biggest star taken away in often tragic circumstances.
“It’s very bittersweet and unsettling, to be honest,” says filmmaker Eric Styles, who directed the late John Hurt in the cancer drama That Good Night months before Hurt’s death in 2017. “That knowledge that you have someone’s final performance in your hands. It’s not a position you ever imagine you’d be in, and I don’t think it’s a position that anyone would really welcome. Their legacy ends with your movie.”
That gravity weighs on even the lightest of films. Off the Rails is so gentle and feel-good in its cosiness that it’s practically made out of your grandmother’s tea towels, yet unintentional poignancy floods every scene. Preston stars as one of three lifelong friends – Sally Phillips and Jenny Seagrove play the others – brought together by the death of a fourth. We see her character in mourning at a funeral, and her heartache over someone cruelly taken before their time. Much of it may be projection, but everything Preston does in the film is suddenly gripped with portent. Even more, your eyes struggle to leave her side. In death, her presence conjures the odd effect of seeing someone as if for the first time, even when you’ve seen them countless times already.
I had watched Preston in a number of films before I saw Off the Rails. She played mums in lots of things I grew up with – Jack Frost, Sky High, What a Girl Wants – and she dumped Tom Cruise at the beginning of Jerry Maguire. She was also easy to overlook. Perhaps it was because she never had a real breakout role, or that the gargantuan shadow of her husband’s fame outshone her own. Either way, she was rarely heralded or talked about, and you finish Off the Rails wondering why. She is luminous in it.
“People forget what a good actress she is,” Kenwright says. “She’s terrific. And we talked, bless her… she had an ambition of doing a play in London. We talked about it, her coming and doing a play and then a [film] sequel. We were going to do Further Off the Rails. They had such a good time, and everyone wanted to do it and the writer was writing it. But we wouldn’t do it now.”
Plans like that, discussed to varying degrees of seriousness at the time, come to define the grieving process. When the rapper and actor Tupac Shakur finished filming the police thriller Gang Related in 1996, he had promised writer-director Jim Kouf that he would help shape the film’s score and its soundtrack. His co-star Jim Belushi had introduced him to Frank Sinatra on the set, and he had been instantly besotted. “He was planning on doing – which would have been amazing – an album of Frank Sinatra songs,” says producer Lynn Kouf. “He loved ‘Fly Me to the Moon’.” Jim, her husband, adds: “I don’t even know what that would have been like, had he had the chance to complete it.”
Just 10 days after he had finished filming his last scene in the movie, Shakur was hit multiple times in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. He would die in hospital less than a week later. Gang Related is sometimes difficult to watch as a result. His character, a crooked cop, at one point expresses regret that his circumstances are always trailed by murder and violence. He is also shot dead off-screen, with his lifeless body found by police soon after. “I heard a lot of people didn’t want to go see it because they didn’t want to see him dead,” Kouf recalls. “It was too emotional. I think that hurt the box office, and understandably so. A lot of people just could not bring themselves to go see him die.”
That queasy blurring between fact and fiction happens far more than you’d assume in films released after their stars die – from Paul Walker’s death in a high-speed car accident while on a break from filming a Fast & Furious movie to Brandon Lee being shot in a fatal accident on the set of The Crow, a superhero vehicle in which his character is also shot and killed. Even The Dark Knight – arguably cinema’s most famous posthumous movie – is shadowed by the morbid eeriness of Heath Ledger’s method transformation into the Joker, which tabloids in 2008 (apparently incorrectly) claimed had contributed to the insomnia that led to his overdose. In That Good Night, Hurt plays a revered screenwriter diagnosed with a terminal illness, who attempts to piece together his fractured family before he dies. Hurt filmed the movie shortly after going public with his own diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
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“It was very obvious to me and the crew that John was ill, but he was just really determined to give the film his all,” Styles remembers. “We had to organise our filming schedule because he was continuing treatment in the UK. It was very strange to be making a film about mortality with somebody you’re very conscious is living with that on a day-to-day basis.”
I suspect a lot of people, like me, tend to avoid “final films” in the same way people don’t like to attend funerals. Not just because they’re deeply sad, but because they feel like closing a chapter on someone you love. A few years after the 2009 death of Brittany Murphy – the sunny star of Clueless and 8 Mile – I binged everything she ever made, from bad children’s films where she gave voice to a dog, to old music videos she had made for the rock band Wheatus. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch her last ever movie. The thriller Something Wicked, which was released in 2014, may be great, but the idea of watching it felt cruelly finite. It’s denial, sure, but it’s also nice knowing there’s still something new out there starring your favourite actor – something waiting to be found when the time is right.
Similarly, it took a long time for me to watch Queen of the Damned, the second and final movie to star the mesmeric R&B singer Aaliyah. She died in a plane crash a few months after filming it in 2001, the “breaking news” banners announcing her death haunting the generation of fans who had grown up with her. What I had heard was that a show-stealing performance in Queen of the Damned only seemed to punctuate what we had lost. In the film, a loose adaptation of an Anne Rice novel, she played the titular villain, a spookily seductive vampire goddess. Her performance has come to define the film’s modern legacy.
“Today, the movie is an Aaliyah movie far more than it is an Anne Rice movie,” says the film’s producer, Jorge Saralegui. He remembers being stunned watching her performance unfold on set, and her transformation from a “demure, friendly” pop star to a powerful vampire queen. “It was almost like gravity,” he says. “You have different celestial objects and you see one that’s just pulling everything into it. You go, ‘But how’s that possible when that planet isn’t that big?’ And yet it’s pulling everything into it, all that energy… that was her on the set.”
I finally watched Queen of the Damned a few years ago. It was bittersweet. Aaliyah is practically her own special effect, an uncanny, sensual and otherworldly spectre floating through the film as if she’s on a conveyer belt. Her work is worlds away from the icy cool she embodied as a performer. She could have been – should have been – one of the very greats. “I feel a sense of fulfilment or gratitude that, given that Aaliyah died, Queen of the Damned is what she did last and that it shows her abilities to such a great degree,” Saralegui says. “She knocks it out of the park. So if it had to be the last thing she did, and all it could be is a vision of promise, or a tease at what else could have come, I’m happy that it was so illustrative of what she could do.”
It’s something to cling to when it comes to posthumous films. As tough as it is to watch the recently deceased in films they didn’t anticipate would be their last, there’s also a comfort to watching them be so brilliant. In a scene in Off the Rails, Preston encounters a snobby French saleswoman, and proceeds to covertly plant a Hitler moustache on her upper lip using a bit of make-up on the end of her finger. Preston relishes the moment in all its low-stakes cheekiness, and it’s a joy to see her so happy and mischievous. That’s the magic of these things, though. Even though Preston isn’t here any more, to see her own work or make a sequel or attend the movie’s premiere, she lives on forever on film. What a gift that is.
‘Off the Rails’ is released in cinemas on Friday 23 July