For a generation of moviegoers, John Cusack was a sensitive heartthrob in '80s teen films like Better Off Dead, Say Anything..., and One Crazy Summer. In 1997, after several years in lower-profile roles, Cusack reemerged for the next generation as Martin Q. Blank, a depressed hitman who attends his high school reunion. Grosse Pointe Blank opened in 1997 and was a minor hit, earning $28 million (about twice that at 2017 ticket prices) before going on to become a cult favorite. It reintroduced John Cusack to the world, and it gave Dan Aykroyd his best role in several years, too. Let's relive the '80s for one night and dive deep into Grosse Pointe Blank.
1. THE SCREENWRITER WAS MOTIVATED BY PANIC OVER HIS OWN REUNION.
In 1991, Tom Jankiewicz got a letter about his 10-year reunion back at Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights, Michigan. He was in L.A. by now, trying to become a screenwriter, supporting himself by working at Big Lots and as a substitute teacher. But he wasn't ready to see all those old friends again. His brother later said, "When the letter came, he wasn't where he wanted to be yet ... It freaked him out, but it made him productive. He sat down and got serious about [what would become] Grosse Pointe Blank."
2. SOME CHARACTERS ARE NAMED AFTER THE WRITER’S FORMER CLASSMATES.
Jankiewicz didn't actually go to his reunion, but he did use the names of former classmates for some of the characters in his screenplay. Jeremy Piven's character, Paul Spericki, for example, was named after Jankiewicz's best friend, and the movie's reunion announcement was a near-verbatim copy of the real one. He chose Grosse Pointe—"the Beverly Hills of Michigan"—over his own hometown because it sounded better, and he named Marcella (Joan Cusack) after his manager at Big Lots.
3. YOU MAY HAVE HEARD THAT IT'S BASED ON A REAL GROSSE POINTE STUDENT WHO BECAME A HITMAN. IT ISN'T.
Jankiewicz reportedly loved that urban legend, but there's no truth to it. Jankiewicz just didn't think a movie about a cashier at Big Lots attending his 10-year reunion would be very interesting, and he used his fondness for crime fiction to come up with the hitman idea.
4. KIEFER SUTHERLAND WANTED TO BE IN IT AT ONE POINT.
Though several production companies liked the concept, it took a while for Jankiewicz to sell his script. Kiefer Sutherland wanted to make it (this would have been around 1992 or 1993), but, in the words of one columnist, "the mix of comedy and violence proved to be a tough sell."
5. JOHN CUSACK AND HIS FRIENDS PERSONALIZED IT.
Cusack had a company, New Crime Productions, that he'd formed with old Chicago friends Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis, and with which another friend, Piven, was also involved. They found Jankiewicz's screenplay, optioned it, and set to work revising it to match Cusack's specific tastes and talents. Piven, Pink, and DeVincentis all have onscreen roles, as do Cusack's siblings Joan, Ann, and Bill. A journalist who went to high school with Cusack in Evanston, Illinois found allusions to their school in the finished movie, writing, "If I'm not mistaken, the heroine's last name, Newberry, belonged to a pair of cute, artistic Evanston sisters; and the bully is a thinly disguised (and inexplicably cruel) parody of another of my classmates, who I pray hasn't seen this movie."
6. THE DIRECTOR CLAIMS WRITING CREDIT, TOO.
George Armitage was a Roger Corman protégé who had written and/or directed a few blaxploitation films in the 1970s, including Hit Man and Darktown Strutters, plus the well-received 1990 crime film Miami Blues (starring Alec Baldwin). Grosse Pointe Blank was the first movie he directed that he didn't also write, but he said he could have had screenplay credit for this one, too. "I did as much as anyone did in terms of writing," he told an interviewer. "Because the Writers Guild is insane with the way they handle the credits, I decided that if I threw my name into the mix, the percentage would drop for everybody and they'd get screwed out of it."
7. SOMEWHERE THERE'S A TREASURE TROVE OF ALTERNATE TAKES AND DELETED SCENES.
Armitage said they "basically shot three movies simultaneously": one that stuck to the script, one that was "mildly understated," and one that went "completely over-the-top" in terms of improvisation and energy. It was usually the third version that got used, which means there are alternate versions of nearly every scene still out there somewhere. (So far, the film's DVD and Blu-ray releases haven't had any of them.)
8. THE KISS DEBI PLANTS ON MARTIN WAS IMPROVISED.
In one of those loose "third versions" of the scene where Martin walks into Debi's radio booth for the first time, Minnie Driver decided to let her character put all the cards on the table and just kiss him. Armitage said, "It was just wonderful, completely out of the blue. You should have seen the smile on Johnny's face afterwards."
9. CUSACK FOUGHT A WORLD-CHAMPION KICKBOXER, WHO ALSO HAPPENED TO BE HIS TEACHER.
Benny "The Jet" Urquidez has nine black belts and was a competitive fighter in the 1960s and '70s before taking on some movie roles. In Grosse Pointe Blank, he plays Felix La PuBelle, the assassin who pursues Martin throughout the film, culminating in a fight to the death in the high school hallway. Urquidez got the job because he was already Cusack's kickboxing instructor; they met when Cusack had to learn "the sport of the future" for Say Anything... Urquidez continued to train Cusack for years afterward.
10. QUENTIN TARANTINO WAS A FAN, AND ALMOST HAD A CAMEO.
Quentin Tarantino, who'd just burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, was a fan of Armitage's work and somehow came to be personally acquainted with him. While filming the 7-Eleven shootout in Grosse Pointe Blank, Armitage added a nod to Tarantino with his help. "I called him and said, 'Could I use your lobby card of the Pulp Fiction cast?' Armitage recalled. "So we wired that with squibs and shot it up too." He said Tarantino wanted to make a cameo—"he wanted to be shot or blown up or something"—but it never materialized.
11. IT WAS FILMED ALMOST ENTIRELY ON LOCATION ... IN LOS ANGELES.
The crew spent only half a day in the real Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and most of that in a helicopter, getting aerial shots of the town. "I would have given anything if we could have made the movie there," Cusack said. "But it was all number crunching, so we spent it on the movie instead of the location." Doubling for Grosse Pointe High School was John Marshall High School, an L.A. institution that's been used in numerous films. Grosse Pointe's main drag was in nearby Monrovia, California.
12. CUSACK SAW IT AS A METAPHOR FOR THE REAGAN/BUSH YEARS.
"I grew up fascinated by people in the Reagan administration, their ethics, their mercenary values," he said in an interview. "People who plan wars and then go home to their wives and their kids ... How do they live? To me, Grosse Pointe Blank was a metaphor for the people in the Bush White House." Elsewhere, he described the movie as "a black comedy about the American Dream, that 'win at all costs' personality you see every day ... A tongue-in-cheek look at the American value system."
13. THE ORIGINAL SCREENWRITER DIED SUDDENLY AFTER A POST-SCREENING Q&A.
There's a sad postscript to Grosse Pointe Blank. The original writer, Tom Jankiewicz, continued to work in Hollywood as an uncredited (but not unpaid) script doctor, and as a journalist and copywriter. He was a shy, kind, tall man—six-foot-nine—who stayed out of the spotlight. In January 2013, on a whim, he accepted an invitation to a college professor's screening of Grosse Pointe Blank and treated the students to a Q&A afterward. During the discussion, Jankiewicz collapsed, and he died at the hospital later that night. It was a shock; he was only 49 and in good health. Family members speculated that his heart had been weakened by a case of bronchitis he'd had a few weeks earlier.