Meet Joe Black is the culmination of two decades of gestation on the part of director/producer Martin Brest and was inspired by a character from the 1920s stage play adapted for the screen in 1934 as Death Takes A Holiday. "I first saw the original film over 20 years ago," Brest says, "and it intrigued me; haunted me, really. There was a suggestion in the old movie of what might be a great story, but it was a story that had yet to be discovered. We had to start from scratch because rather than do a remake I wanted to explore an element that sparked my interest."
Brest first started thinking seriously about the project as early as 1982, but the proper approach remained a puzzle. He worked with several writers and various drafts were penned over the years while he was busy with other projects. At last, the screenplay Brest envisioned began to take shape: a story that revolved around a wealthy, powerful, universally-respected businessman and his family.
The impetus of the story would be the mansWilliam Parrishsassessment of his life and the astonishing appearance in his house of an otherworldly presence. The twist, however, is that the screenplay concerns itself not with any dark side of the subject but with its life-affirming aspects.
Interacting with the man prompts the otherworldly presence to assume a human formJoe Blackso that he can learn about Parrishs life and the ways of this world, but the unthinkable occurs: Joe falls for Susan, Parrishs beautiful, forthright daughter, and experiences love in all its exquisite and painful permutations.
Throughout the creation of the script, the forging of Joe Blacks character was key to the story and its evocative power. "We struggled to find a voice for Joe Black," comments Brest. "Who is he? What does he sound like? What is his point of view? How do we present him as a viable character so that the audience believes that this might really happen?"
The answer was to make Joe Black as real as possible. Explains Bo Goldman, who collaborated on the screenplay, "Joe has a certain New England formality, and a courtesy, but he also has something morea profound innocence. He speaks as a child does. He's curious, and he has respect for people. He doesn't judge anyone, not at first anyway. And yet, he's possessed with this unutterable, terrible power. The ultimate power. So he's lovely, charming, attractivebut he's also menacing."
Bill Parrish's character was equally central to the films development. Brest perceived Parrish as an extraordinary 20th century man, a personage of astounding wealth and power who nevertheless has remained decent and compassionate, a man of integrity and firmly-held convictions, someone who loved his late wife and adores both of his daughters.
Kevin Wade recalls, "We wanted to create another layer to the conflicts Parrish faces. We identified him as a man who has built his business as a dearly held reflection of his own convictions and tastes, and when that legacy is threatened, finds himself in the toughest negotiation of his life. His struggle to preserve his legacy, and the effect that his determination has on Joe, became an integral theme for further exploring and defining their relationship."
But for all his grace, Parrish is no pushover. No one who has achieved the power he has can be treated lightly, and Joe, upon entering this mans world, senses this. Joe understands immediately when he enters Parrishs home that here resides a great man, someone he wants to spend time with and learn from. He also senses, from the very beginning, that Parrish will be a great teacher and that he will learn much about the human condition from this man.
With these complex characters now brought to life, and the production confirmed by Universal Pictures, Martin Brest cast two of the screen's foremost actors to portray the leads: Brad Pitt as Joe Black, and Anthony Hopkins as Bill Parrish.
A Golden Globe winner and Academy Award®-nominee for his performance in Twelve Monkeys, Pitt skyrocketed to fame following his electrifying performance in Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise. In recent years, he has emerged as one of the most prominent actors of his generation. Pitt, unusual for a star of his caliber, challenges himself with every new role, and his career is distinguished by the daring and diverse characters he has chosen to playpeople as far apart as the serial killer in Kalifornia, the bloodsucking Louis in Interview with the Vampire, the newly-married detective in Seven, the IRA member on a secret mission in the U.S. in The Devil's Own, and an arrogant Austrian mountain climber who undergoes a spiritual transformation in Seven Years in Tibet.
The actor says he doesn't have any grand strategy for what he chooses.
"When I read a script, I go by instinct. I feel in my gut if it's right. And that's how it was with this screenplay. I knew it was something I wanted to do. The story grabs you. There's an artless side to this character, a direct simplicity that appealed to me. And great, literate, dialogue, sophisticated drawing room exchanges, and scenes in which characters speak from their heart." The fact that Meet Joe Black was a love story also appealed to Pitt.
An Academy Award® winner for The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins is one of the greatest actors of our time. Nominated for the Oscar® for his performances in Nixon, The Remains of the Day and Amistad, he is the recipient of more than 25 acting awards for his work on stage, on television and in films, and he has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Hopkins's range is enormouseverything from Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Pinter, Schaffer and Mamet on stage and television, to productions by Merchant/Ivory, Oliver Stone, David Lynch, Richard Attenborough and Steven Spielberg, to name but a few, on the big screen. Hopkins is the first to admit it: he's a film star who loves to work.
"But I've become more choosy as of late," he says. "Yet as soon as I read this script I knew I had to do it. It's very good, very fine, a very romantic film. I think audiences are going to be entranced by it. It's a real up lifter. It's going to leave you with a wonderful feeling. And it's a gorgeous, sumptuous production. I'm a big movie fan. And this is a real movie-movie."
For the coveted role of Parrish's daughter Susan, a hardworking physician, Brest cast newcomer Claire Forlani. The beautiful young actress who has been making a name for herself in independent features has appeared in Julian Schnabels Basquiat and also played Sean Connerys daughter in the action adventure, The Rock, co-starring Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris.
Marcia Gay Harden, well-known to film audiences for her performances in The First Wives Club and The Spitfire Grill, was cast as Allison, Parrish's older daughter. A Tony Award nominee, Drama Desk and Theater World Award winner for her unforgettable performance on Broadway in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Ms. Harden recently appeared opposite Robin Williams in Flubber and co-starred with Michael Keaton and Andy Garcia in Desperate Measures.
Jeffrey Tambor and Jake Weber complete the principal cast. Tambor, co-star and four- time Emmy Award-nominee for his role in HBO's award-winning series The Larry Sanders Show, plays Allison's loving husband Quince, who is unsinkably loyal to his wife and his father-in-law.
Young stage actor Jake Weber is Drew, Susan's ambitious fiancé. Known for his work off-Broadway in plays by John Patrick Shanley, Weber has appeared at the New York Shakespeare Festival and on Broadway. His film credits include The Pelican Brief, Dangerous Beauty and Amistad, with Anthony Hopkins.