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HomeIndustry SectorFilmJulian Sands: Veteran Set Decorator John Sparano on the Likely Tragic End...

Julian Sands: Veteran Set Decorator John Sparano on the Likely Tragic End of the Warlock and Boxing Helena Star

I met Julian Sands in the parking lot of what is now the Andaz by Hyatt on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. It was sometime around Halloween of 1994 — a fitting time to meet the actor who played the most convincing representation of a classic warlock on the big screen. I was working in the property department on the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas. It was the final call of a particularly grueling film shoot, where the nights would start off with a dinner of hamburgers and fries from a food truck in the days when food trucks didn’t have cute names or star chef sponsorships.

Julian and I were perusing the condiment tray and we had a few words about the types of mustard offered before he made his way up to the hotel room where we were shooting the opening scenes of the film. Leaving Las Vegas was pretty much shot in reverse, and we had made our way from some of the seediest motels in Los Angeles to one of the more luxurious. Over the course of what would be a long and hectic night, one where I was giving instructions on how to snort fake cocaine while keeping fake vodka flowing for Russian mobsters, I got to observe the process of a truly gifted actor.

Most of us first met Julian Sands in a field lush with poppies somewhere in the Italian countryside against the strains of a Puccini aria. His awkward yet passionate kiss with a radiant Helena Bonham Carter in 1985’s Room With a View turned out to be one of the most romantic screen moments of all time. Dashing, vulnerable, yet impeccably clear with his intentions, Sands would become the epitome of a period romantic lead. His career could have stayed locked in that moment from Room With a View, but Julian wasn’t interested in that. An actor of range and ambition, he continually twisted his image to fit characters with cruelty and horror seething beneath his boyish good looks and posh veneer of breeding and manners. Though the body of his later work never rose to the heights of some of his earlier films, he continued to work for almost 40 more years in film, television, and new media, always balancing charm and cruelty — horror and romance.

Leaving Las Vegas
Julian Sands and Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas/MGM/UA

On a cinematically fitting Friday the 13th of this past January, Julian Sands failed to return from a hike in the Mt. Baldy area of Los Angeles. Notoriously difficult terrain, high winds, and cold weather hampered the search for any signs of life, and over a month later, the inevitability of his death creeps toward his loved ones like the shadow of a growing rain cloud waiting to burst. Although hope springs eternal, the low odds of his survival in sub-freezing temperatures for such a long length of time cannot be ignored. While Julian’s family and friends grapple with the acceptance of his passing, I looked back at his career and my own experience with him and began this reflection. Not to memorialize him, but to highlight some of his work as the world awaits his final act.

Room With a View didn’t call for much more than good looks and a sweet swagger, but Sands developed a much more complex stature. He outlined the character with self-doubt and a resignation that he may never be happy at the end of the story. This tactic kept the film from simply hitting its beats until the lovers who were obviously meant for each other wound up together. Unfortunately upstaged by an actor who would go on to be one of the best of his generation, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sands’ equally brilliant character modulation would become an interesting side note. In his follow-up to RWAV, the 1986 horror film Gothic, Sands turned the romantic lead on its head by taking the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and imbuing him with all the narcissism and cruelty any film could handle in a lead character. He would do the same with composer Franz Liszt in 1991’s Impromptu, another sumptuous romantic film where a young actor — in this case, Hugh Grant — stole most of the praise.

I brought up 1989’s Warlock not because it was a box office hit or a particularly good film, but because of how seriously Sands handled the part. At once evil and attractive, he added a layer of fear and anxiety missing from classic supernatural bad-guy roles. The fear in his eyes when his character’s weaknesses are revealed created a human connection in an otherwise fantastical villain. This cautious structuring of a psychotic lead came into full bloom in the infamous 1993 drama Boxing Helena.

Boxing Helena
Julian Sands and Sherilyn Fenn in Boxing Helena/Orion Classics

A project fraught with controversy and a part few wanted to take, Sands agreed to do the role after Ed Harris dropped out because of delays, and Madonna and Kim Basinger also left due to the risky nature of the film. In Basinger’s case, it cost her $9 million dollars due to a breach of contract. The film chronicled the limb dismemberment and uncomfortable imprisonment of Sands’ object of desire, eventually played by Sherilyn Fenn. Jennifer Lynch‘s script has its title character ridiculing the shortcomings of Sands’ character even after he removes her body parts, and her fate is sealed. The film was maligned as much as it was praised, and Sands’ participation in it chilled his prospects in mainstream projects. However, two years later, a small independent film would expose him to his biggest audience since his paint-by-numbers turn in the box office success Arachnophobia (1990).

Leaving Las Vegas was shot in Super 16mm on a shoestring budget in a little under two months in the fall of 1994. A clinic on low-budget film production, the film used Laughlin, Nevada for most of the gambling scenes, heading to Las Vegas only for exteriors. A deep dive into depression and alcoholism, the film relied on ingenious scheduling and clever logistics to pull off its expansive cast of characters and locations. A critical and commercial success, the film garnered Nicolas Cage his only Oscar win, and Elisabeth Shue‘s sole Oscar nomination as well. Director Mike Figgis had a strict no-drinking policy because of the subject matter, and when he was forced to fire part of the crew for misbehaving on the bus back from Laughlin, I got a call from the company prop master to take over as assistant for one of the terminated crew.

Arachnophobia
Julian Sands in Arachnophobia/Buena Vista Pictures

I spent close to 20 hours in a small hotel suite overlooking the Sunset Strip that final evening babysitting shots of water for vodka and crushing B1 vitamin standing in for cocaine. Julian Sands came onto the set with exuberant energy and a pleasant demeanor. What was impressive was his ability to joke around with the cast one moment, and menace Elizabeth Shue in rehearsals the next. He struck me as similar to the characters he had played up to that point, with a little more intellect and a subtle softness that I did not expect.

Employing a Russian accent and a hospitable persona to the other killers in the scene, his brief time on screen served as vital motivation to Shue’s desperate, sex-trafficked loner. Most of their scenes were shot with a closed set and the crew waiting in the hallway for hours. However, at the beginning of the night, as I was putting out the B1, Shue, an apparent straight arrow at the time, confided in me that she had never done cocaine before. I told her everything I knew about it, but it wasn’t until the premiere of the film that I saw her employ the gum hit that was part of the lesson. I remember driving home exhausted from the shoot the next day and seeing Mike Figgis in the car next to me. He looked at me with a look that said, “If you think you’re tired…”

As of this writing, Julian Sands’ body has not been found. But wherever Julian is and whenever he is found, I’d like to think that his spirit will be dancing in the sunset over a field of poppies in the Italian countryside with a Puccini aria playing in the distance.

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