THE NUMBER 23 is a paranoid thriller about a dog catcher named Walter (Jim Carrey), whose encounter with a mysterious mutt named Ned starts him on a downward spiral toward madness. Bitten by the dog, Walter is late for his dinner with his wife (Viriginia Madsen), who passes the time leafing through book, called The Number 23, which she buys for her husband’s birthday. Walter becomes obsessed with the story, which seems to parallel his own life in mysterious ways, most having to do with the recurrence of the titular numeral. The film was directed by Joel Schumacher from an original screenplay by Fernley Phillips. At a recent screening in Santa Monica, California, producer Beau Flynn (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) discussed the film.
BEAU FLYNN: Fernley Phillips, a very young writer, wrote the script, when he was 23 or 24 years old. I optioned the script with New Line about four and a half years ago. A young executive who worked for me at the time found the script, and we developed it. The executive who worked for me is now married to the writer, so she really liked his writing.
IN 2002, FLYNN GAVE THE SCRIPT TO SCHUMACHER, WITH WHOM HE HAD MADE TIGERLAND (2000), BUT THE PROJECT NEVER CLICKED AT THAT TIME.
BEAU FLYNN: I knew he wanted to get back into the thriller genre; he wanted to make edgier, different things – more ambitious films.
SCHUMACHER LEFT TO DO PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 2004). BRYAN SINGER CAME ON BOARD TO DIRECT BUT LEFT TO DO SUPERMAN RETURNS, OPENING THE DOOR FOR SCHUMACHER TO RETURN AFTER COMPLETING PHANTOM. DURING THAT TIME, FLYNN HAD GIVEN THE SCRIPT TO ANOTHER DIRECTOR, WHO SHOWED IT TO CARREY.
BEAU FLYNN: Jim’s company is called ‘JC 23.’ It’s been the name of his company for ten years. Jim has been obsessed with the Number 23 enigma on his own. So when he heard about this script, he said, ‘I want to read it.’ He read it that night. Probably one of the few incoming calls a producer ever got was Jim Carrey saying, ‘I want to do your movie’ – normally, you have to beg the actors to even read the script. It was very fortuitous. I put Jim and Joel together; they knew each other, and we made the movie.
FLYNN CLAIMS THE ENIGMA SURROUNDING THE NUMBER 23 IS A REAL PHENOMENON, CITING EXAMPLES FROM HIS OWN LIFE
BEAU FLYNN: You search ’23 enigma’ online, and there’s over a million Google matches. People collect photos of the number 23 all over the world. From the movie, there’s been a huge outpouring of people talking about it and probably finding a little relief that they’re not the only ones that are obsessed with the number. That was my number I used in sports, and my birthday’s on the 23rd. I had a connection. When I was reading the script, I was adding my name up and it came to 23, and my address when I was growing up came to 23, so it definitely started to freak me out. You’ll start to see this number…if you really research it, it is pretty powerful, or at least it seems like there’s a little something about it that’s a little more than other numbers.
THE FILM FEATURES SOME IMPRESSIVE SPECIAL EFFECTS TO CREATE THE FICITONAL WORLD OF DETECTIVE FINGERLING, THE CHARACTER IN THE NOVEL THAT WALTER IS READING. ALTHOUGH DUPLICATE CASTING WAS NOT INDICATED IN THE SCRIPT, CARREY ENDED UP PLAYING BOTH WALTER AND HIS HARD-BOILED ALTER EGO.
BEAU FLYNN: We knew that Joel would definitely bring a visual flair, which the film needed. The script was pretty far out there, so we did want to make a noir feeling for the Fingerling world. We wanted a storybook world for the young Fingerling. Then we wanted it to converge stylistically the world of Fingerling and the world of Walter. One thing that Joel was really smart about – but really risky – was Fingerling and Fabrizia in the script were basically heads with sunken eyes and no features. Joel felt like, ‘Let’s have Jim play that part.’ Otherwise, half the movie is some random guy with a stocking on his head.
VIRGINIA MADSEN ALSO ENDED UP SERVING DOUBLE DUTY, PLAYING THE DETECTIVE’S SULTRY LOVE INTERST IN THE FINGERLING SEQUENCES..
BEAU FLYNN: We felt like Virginia – we all knew she can play the supportive, loving wife, and the family is really important to this film. But also I thought it would be fun to have her play Fabrizzia – she was great in that part. If you didn’t believe in this family unit, then I don’t think you would care about Walter’s spiral into madness. Lynne Collins plays three roles: Suicide Blonde, Fingerling’s Mom, and Widow Dobkins. Also, all the sets were repurposed as well. So we used all the same actors, all the same sets. We redressed all the sets, so the Fingerling world and the Walter world – we knew that they were similar, but not exactly [the same].
ONE OF THE FILM’S INTERESTING BITS OF QUIRKY CASTING IS BUD CORT (HAROLD AND MAUDE) AS A MYSTERIOUS MAN CONNECTED WITH THE PUBLICATION OF THE NOVEL PLAGUING WALTER.
BEAU FLYNN: Bud Cort has been working forever. He’s a fascinating guy. He takes his work very seriously. We definitely had a good time with him; he worked two days on the picture; he was really cool.
WHAT IS THE CONNECTION, IF ANY, BETWEEN CORT’S CHARACTER AND WALTER, AND WHY DOES THE NUMBER 23 SEEM TO CONTROL HIS LIFE? HOW CLEARLY TO ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS WAS A DEBATE NOT SETTLED UNTIL THE FINAL EDITING..
BEAU FLYNN: I think there was a point where everyone felt we were explaining too much. Now maybe people think we’re not explaining enough, but we felt like this was a good balance. Some people get confused on Virginia – when she bought the book and how that happened. The movie is about ‘you sin will find you out.’
ONE ELEMENT OF THE MYSTERY THAT REMAINS AN ENIGMA IS THE NATURE OF THE DOG, IDENTIFIED AS NED BY HIS COLLAR, WHO BITES WALTER, PRECIPITATING THE ACTION. IS IT JUST COINCIDENCE THAT NED BELONGED TO A WOMAN WHOSE DEATH MIRRORS EVENTS IN THE NOVEL WALTER IS READING, OR IS SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON?
BEAU FLYNN: It was an interesting choice in terms of Ned, the dog, because that was kind of an ethereal character. 23 ultimately represents a sign, trying to flush out the truth, in terms of all of us have hidden secrets and skeletons in our closet. Ultimately we start seeing recurring patterns and we try to flush that out. Ned is the one who brings that out.
THE FILM ATTEMPTS TO PORTRAY A DARK DESCENT INTO PARANOIA, ALMOST WRITING ITSELF INTO A CORNER WHEN THE ENDING APPROACHES. THE CONCLUSION SEEN ON SCREEN BETRAYS SOME FAIRLY OBVIOUS HOLLYWOOD RETHINKING (REMINISCENT OF WHAT HAPPENED ON SCHUMACHER’S PREVIOUS DARK THRILLER, 8MMM, WRITTEN BY SEVEN-SCRIBE ANDREW KEVIN WALKER). WHAT HAPPENED? (SPOILERS FOLLOW.)
BEAU FLYNN: One of the things that’s cool about this movie is there’s only one credited writer, and that’s pretty rare, especially for a movie that has a substantial director and a star like Jim. Jim was really cool to work with Fernley all the way through and never say, ‘Let’s put on a new writer.’ That never happened. Everyone believed in the voice of this picture. In the original draft Walter Sparrow did commit suicide; he killed himself at the end. He did exactly the same [as in the movie] – he stood in front of the bus and died in front of his family, in a way to make a sacrifice. We didn’t shoot that version; we didn’t test that version. Everyone felt it was very important for Walter Sparrow to try to break the curse for his son. By committing suicide, it would perpetuate the curse, which would be passed on to [his son] Robin; Robin would be obsessed with the number and ultimately have to commit suicide. We looked at trying to take control of your life and trying to be able to direct destiny. Maybe you have a choice. All the work was done by Fernley and Joel Schumacher.