By Susan King
LOS ANGELES (Variety) – When Jerry Evans was hired to choreograph the blockbuster superhero comedy “The Mask,” which celebrates its 25th anniversary Monday, he was surprised when director Chuck Russell informed him he was secretly making a musical.
“I said, ‘Secretly?” recalled Evans, adding that Russell admitted that “I haven’t told anybody other than you and my producer. We’ll just tell everybody when it’s time, I guess.’ He had a plan. I said ‘Sounds good to me. I love it.”’
And so did audiences and critics in the summer of 1994.
Variety‘s review called the showcase for Jim Carrey’s talents “adroitly directed, viscerally and visually dynamic and just plain fun.”
Based on the popular Dark Horse comic book series of the same name, “The Mask” turned Carrey into a superstar as the sweet, nebbish, cartoon-loving loan officer Stanley Ipkiss who turns into a green-faced human cartoon when he dons a magical mask he found.
The masked Stanley is a human Tex Avery cartoon, a wisecracking zoot-suited dynamo who cracks wise and dances a la Carmen Miranda to the Desi Arnaz song “Cuban Pete.”
“The Mask” introduced movie audiences to a young model named Cameron Diaz as Tina, the object of Stanley’s affections. She proved to be a contemporary Carole Lombard and her career took off like a rocket. Peter Greene played her boyfriend, the vile gangster Dorian Tyrell, and comic Richard Jeni was Stanley’s best friend Charlie.
Rounding out the cast was a charmer named Max, a Jack Russell Terrier, who played Stanley’s beloved pet, Milo.
Featuring Oscar and BAFTA-nominated visual effects and colorful BAFTA-nominated production design, “The Mask” made over $351 million worldwide — not bad for production budgeted at $23 million.
Animation historian Jerry Beck noted “The Mask” was the perfect follow-up for a “film like ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ which was a gigantic sensation of 1988. It wasn’t really anything, on one hand, like ‘Roger Rabbit.’ On the other hand, it was a lot like it. It had a crime noir plot and cartoon references.”
“The Mask,” he added, “is a great combination of great source material, both the comic book and the Tex Avery cartoons and the unbelievable great casting of . It’s interesting looking back at the film now — it’s really the precursor to ‘Deadpool’ in a lot of ways. “
Stanley, he said, “talks to the audience” like Ryan Reynolds’ masked Deadpool. “They break the fourth wall. He’s doing all these cartoony insane things. He’s a crime fighter, a superhero in a dark way like Deadpool.”
It was Russell who envisioned “The Mask” as a comedy. Though he had been a producer on the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy hit “Back to School,” Russell had earned acclaimed for New Line’s 1987 horror flick, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.” And the then- indie studio was looking to create another horror franchise like ‘Elm Street” with the popular and violent Dark Horse comic book series.
In the comic, said Russell, “the character would put on the mask, have a couple of scary, but funny lines and then chop people up with an ax. The original Dark Horse comic is something they used to call ‘Splatterpunk,’ which I felt was very inspired by Freddy Krueger and the ‘Elm Street series. But it also had a unique look and vision of its own.”
His entire concept of doing ‘The Mask’ as a comedy rather than the horror film New Line imagined was inspired by Jim Carrey’s work in stand-up and on Fox’s sketch comedy series “In Living Color.”
Before he hired Carrey, though, he had to convince New Line of “two or three things that were very different for them at the time — that was using this [new digital] technology and doing ‘The Mask’ as a comedy rather than a horror film.”
Russell had hoped that “The Mask” would be Carrey’s first film. “I was very excited about that because I knew Jim from seeing his stand-up, which was almost unbelievable, just what he was doing physically on stage,” he said.
But because the development took a long time, Carrey went off to make “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” which was a huge box office hit when it opened in early 1994.
According to casting director Fern Champion, Russell wanted the late Anna Nicole Smith for Tina. But Russell says that though he was curious about Smith, she was not a choice “as I would have had to read her for the part to get that far. We met. Anna was charming and bubbly but did not have other qualities needed for the role. I never took the next step to run scenes with her.”
Champion said she was looking at the top models of the day without any luck. So, she asked a friend who had a modeling agency in the same building as the New Line offices if she had anybody to recommend.
“There is one gal,” she was told. And that gal was Diaz.
When they met in Champion’s office, the casting director realized she had “instant likeability.”
She’s a great girl. There were no barriers up. There was a brain behind her. She was just wide-eyed and blue-eyed, saying, ‘Yeah, I want to act, Sure. What do I have to do?’”
Champion said she and her modeling agent enrolled her in dance and acting lessons during the casting process.
“I saw Cameron’s 8×10 on the casting desk and asked, ‘What about her?,’” noted Russell. “I was told she was submitted but had not acted in anything else yet. I said to bring her in and let’s see:”
Diaz, Russell explained, “was the only person for the part as far as I was concerned after her first reading. And then I saw the chemistry with her and Jim. Eight callbacks later, including improvs with Jim, I finally convinced producers.”
“The Mask” was also an early film for actress Joely Fisher (“’Till Death,” “Inspector Gadget”) who plays Maggie, Stanley co-worker at the bank who rebuffs his interest.
“I think everybody knew that this was going to be that breakout thing for him,” said Fisher of Carrey. “I think people on social media and people who are fans of the movie itself say ‘Oh I saw you in that movie.’ If you blinked or you didn’t sit down before the credits, you didn’t see me in the movie. But it does set the tone and sets up his character.”
She recalled when Diaz walked out of the trailer for her scene in the bank the ingenue had “a light around her. She was just breathtaking in person. The character was so on the money for her to play. I knew she as going to be a star.”
Diaz wasn’t the only performer who made their film debut in “The Mask.” So did feature director Anne Fletcher (“Step Up” “The Proposal,” “Dumplin’’’) who was at the time a dancer and assistant to choreographer-director Adam Shankman.
She played a dancing cop on the “Cuban Pete” number.
“We had the best time ever,” recalled Fletcher. “This was an exceptional job. You had Jim Carrey, Cameron and Chuck and all of these people. We had so many dancers on it, it was just so much fun. It was so big because I had nothing to compare it to.”
And Carrey, she said, “was choreographer’s dream. He’s all legs and just got such an awareness of his physical abilities, which makes him so funny. He just throws himself out there. He’s not self-aware.”
Fletcher remembered a sweet moment between her and Carrey. She was sitting on the sidewalk between takes and he just sat done next to her and they talked about “nothing” — not about work or their craft. They just had a conversation. “It was genuine and very sincere. It was a real kind of moment you never forget.”
One of the most energetic scenes in the film is the delicious “Hey! Pachuco!” dance number between Carrey and Diaz that takes place at the ‘40s-esque Coco Bongo club.
“Jim is very much like Dick Van Dyke,” noted Evans. “Chuck was smart, he said these two people, they’re not dancers, but this is going to be a big production piece, so I’m going to give you two weeks before we start production to rehearse them every day. So, I had the luxury of working with them at least four hours a day separately.”
Scott Squires, who did the effects with Steve “Spaz” Williams, Tom Bertino and John Farhat, pointed out that “The Mask” was made in “the fairly early days for computer graphics. “
On “The Mask,” he said, they had to simulate the wild, eye-popping Tex Avery-style in 3D. “All the other gags had to be very much choreographed and timed. We were involved from the very beginning. I was on the set for the entire shoot of the film to oversee it and to make sure it was shot correctly so we would work out the timing. Everything in digital effects, especially at that time, you have to shoot everything with the idea of what’s going to be added to it.”
“Jim was doing a lot of his own gags and then we could augment,” said Squires, adding Carrey’s green face make-up took “three-hours plus” to apply to his face and then over-sized dentures were added to give him his unique look.
Production designer Craig Stearns gave the film a stylish ‘40s look on a low budget. The Coco Bongo was shot at the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
“It was a lot of lot of work,” said Stearns. “There was a stage there, but we lowered it and put a really huge, tall stage in that had more of a shape to it. We couldn’t find any ’40s furniture, so the tables were built, and all the chairs were built. I see them today in a lot of things. They are in prop houses. I see them all the time in commercials. “
Carrey, said Stearns, would sometimes arrive late for work. He especially recalled the day; they were scheduled to shoot the scene where Stanley is in jail cell and attempts to get Milo to bring him the keys from the sleeping guard.
“I remember that day he was particularly late, and Chuck was being nervous about why he was so late. And he came in and was just Jim Carrey. And then he just turned into this wild character. He was amazing.”