20 Things You Might Not Have Realised About 1983’s The Big Chill
Presenting us with a fantastic cast that includes Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Glenn Close and Kevin Kline, The Big Chill tells the story of a group of university students who reunite after 15 years when their friend Alex commits suicide.
Below are twenty things you might not have realised about the 1983 film that Richard Corliss of Time magazine described as “a funny and ferociously smart movie.”
20. The characters are all based on real people
It’s not uncommon for writers to base characters on people they know, whether just lifting individual character traits and goals, or ripping off their personalities wholesale. Whether subconsciously or not, writers often draw inspiration from the people they have known throughout their lives, and Lawrence Kasdan is no different. Specifically, Lawrence Kasdan was inspired by people he met at a commune while studying at university.
The group of established friends had a super-specific and detailed dynamic thanks to their different relationships to each other, which Kasdan found fascinating. Talking about his inspiration for the character, Kasdan said: “I think that all these characters are conglomerations of things in me and things we’ve seen in our friends.” However, the characters in The Big Chill aren’t all acting in the kindest and most selfless of ways, so maybe the people he based the characters on wouldn’t be too flattered.
19. Lawrence Kasdan struggled to find a studio that was interested in making the film
After his success writing The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to say Lawrence Kasdan was in demand is an understatement. The reputation his work on the two blockbuster franchises gave him meant he was free to direct Body Heat, which was also a success. After that, many studios reached out asking to work with him, but their interest cooled when he explained what kind of movie he wanted to make.
The character-driven drama of The Big Chill was worlds away from anything the studios had seen him work on before, and wasn’t the action-adventure feature they wanted him to direct. Not only that, but the movie’s focus on male mental health and suicide made studios even more nervous, as they weren’t sure how audiences would respond to the theme. It was only after the movie secured a killer cast and went on to bag some Oscar nominations that the studios who had rejected the idea realised they had made a mistake.
18. The film was co-written by the wife of the director’s lawyer
The Big Chill was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, but it wasn’t exclusively written by him. The movie also had a cowriter, in the form of Barbara Benedek. At the time, Benedek was known for writing episodes of TV shows like I’m a Big Girl Now and It’s a Living, but that’s not why Kasdan chose her to write with him. Instead, at the time he was being represented by and was good friends with Peter Benedek, who happened to be Barbara Benedek’s husband.
That meant the three of them hung out often, and Kasdan thought that Barbara Benedek had a knack for being funny and honest. Kasdan knew he wanted a co-writer to work on the movie, and he also knew he wanted to work with a woman, in order to make sure that the female characters were written compellingly. He selected Benedek on the strength of their friendship, but she more than proved she was up to the task, since she was nominated for an Oscar for her work on the film.
17. The movie originally ended with a flashback to a Thanksgiving before Alex died
We’ve already discussed the fact that Alex was originally far more present in the film, with his face being shown in the original funeral scene, and a flashback scene on top of that. However, what you might not know is what the flashback scene was actually supposed to be, and why it was included. In an earlier draft of the script, the movie ended with a flashback to a scene of all the characters in college, including Alex.
The whole gang are seen joking around and making Thanksgiving dinner together, with Alex alive and well shortly before their graduation. The scene was intended to show that every description we’ve had of Alex from the other characters is completely inaccurate. The purpose was to show that everyone was misremembering what Alex was actually really like, in order to project their own issues onto him.
16. All scenes showing Kevin Costner’s face were removed from the finished film
Kevin Costner was cast in the film as Alex, the friend whose suicide brings the group of university students back together. However, all of the scenes showing Costner’s face were cut out of the finished film, except the one in which he played a dead body. JoBeth Williams, who played the part of Karen Bowens, has been quoted as saying that “nobody could live up to that role after the build-up through the film, and audiences said they didn’t want to see anybody try.” This reaction during test screenings meant that the last ten minutes of the movie were cut, which would otherwise have featured the Thanksgiving dinner flashback.
The Thanksgiving flashback focussed on Alex discussing whether he could ever cut the turkey at the table, since it was so perfect and untouched. The image of the turkey was supposed to be a metaphor for the perfect moment of the college friends’ lives, but it was considered by test audiences to be a little heavy-handed.
15. Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Kline’s house was known on-set as ‘the party house’
The Big Chill had a long rehearsal period and a pretty long shoot, and both pre-production and production itself took place in a remote small town. That meant there was very little for the cast to do except hang out with each other and build their organic chemistry, which was by design on Kasdan’s part. The cast did find ways to entertain themselves though, and the best way they found was to hang out at the house of Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Kline. Goldblum and Kline had a reputation of being party animals, and their house hosted everything from poker nights to dance parties for the cast and crew.
One of the parties even introduced Trivial Pursuit to the American cast, courtesy of the Glenn Close, who was living in Canada at the time. The trivia game was relatively unknown in America at the time, and Glenn Close introducing it to all her friends might be one factor as to how it gained American popularity.
14. The cast really did become best friends while shooting
The Big Chill is a movie all about relationships, and it hinges completely on the chemistry between the group of former college roommates and friends. The cast’s chemistry is integral to the success of the film, and so it was important that they became friends in real-life, rather than just convincingly pretending. Thankfully, their bonding was helped along by the fact that both their rehearsal and the shooting of the film took place in a remote small town.
There was no internet or mobile phones, and very little in the way of nightlife or entertainment, so the cast had to keep themselves occupied. This mostly meant going for long walks in the surrounding area, and hiking up into the woodlands and hills when the weather would permit it. It also meant a lot of talking and getting to know each other, with the cast eventually sharing everything about their lives, just like real friends would.
13. Alex was almost played by Sean Penn
It’s hard to imagine any actors vying for the part of Alex, let alone big names, since we never even see Alex’s face in the film. However, the character was originally supposed to constitute a much bigger role, complete with flashback sequences. Still, the part of Alex was originally given to Kevin Costner, who at the time was right at the beginning of his career. Costner had only played unnamed extras and a couple of bit parts by the time he was cast in The Big Chill, although he went on to gain far more prominence later.
Costner wasn’t the only actor up for the part of Alex though, as Sean Penn was also considered to the deceased former college student. Penn was much more established at the time, having already starred in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
12. The actors weren’t allowed to leave the set when they weren’t shooting
Although the cast did spend a lot of time bonding, as well as playing poker and foosball at the Goldblum-Kline abode, it wasn’t all fun and games. Days on set were apparently long and pretty emotionally draining, given the difficult subject matter and focus on long, unbroken shots of dialogue. The experience was made even worse for the cast by the fact that they were not allowed to leave the set during shooting days.
Whether they were in the scenes being shot that day or not, the cast was encouraged to hang out on set and wait, just in case. Kasdan’s reasoning was that in a busy house like the one seen in the movie, characters would always be hanging out in the background, even if they weren’t taking place in conversations. That meant the whole cast had to be on set every day, in order to walk through the background of scenes or just generally be sitting around.
11. Glenn Close wrote a secret letter from Sarah to Alex
As we’ll go into more later, all the actors in The Big Chill were very dedicated to fleshing out their characters, wanting to know them inside and out. This was helped by the four-week rehearsal process and the cast being encouraged to improvise together, but one actor went above and beyond. Glenn Close created her own exercise to get to know her character better, and wrote a letter from her character Sarah to Alex, the deceased character whose death is the catalyst for the movie.
In the film, it is revealed that Sarah once had an affair with Alex, and so the letter Close wrote was apparently pretty conflicted and heartbreaking. Talking about the content of the letter, Close said: “[Sarah] loved her husband, but [Alex] touched her in a more dangerous place. She had a lot of things she couldn’t say that she was dealing with.” Close even gave the letter to director Lawrence Kasdan, but it was kept a secret from the rest of the cast until the movie was released.
10. It’s actually the first part of a trilogy
The Big Chill is actually the first in a series of three films that Lawrence Kasdan made, intended to function as a trilogy. The three don’t follow the same characters or even take place in the same setting, but they are instead supposed to be thematically linked. The trilogy comprises of 1983s The Big Chill, 1991s Grand Canyon, and 2012s Darling Companion. All three movies are supposed to follow the theme of examining Kasdan’s generation from different angles.
Grand Canyon follows a group of residents of the same neighbourhood, whose lives are intertwined despite their huge personal differences. Darling companion is about a woman who loves her dog more than her husband, whose relationship is tested when the husband loses the dog. It’s unclear what this says about the priorities of Kasdan’s generation, but he maintains that all three movies deal with the same thing.
9. Its director co-wrote two of the original Star Wars films
Lawrence Kasdan directed The Big Chill, as well as coming up with the original concept and co-writing the movie. If you recognise the name, it’s probably because Kasdan wrote some of the most famous movies of all time. Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote three of the biggest films of all time: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
He also went on to write The Bodyguard in 1992, and later returned to the Star Wars franchise to write the spin-off film Solo: A Star Wars Story. The Big Chill was Kasdan’s return to more character-driven comedies and dramas, after the heightened tone of Star Wars. The switch back to drama made things difficult for The Big Chill’s editor Carol Littleton, who had worked with Kasdan before on action movies, but struggled with the pace for the more dialogue-driven film.
8. Both Glenn Close and JoBeth Williams disliked their characters
Lawrence Kasdan wrote parts specifically for both Glenn Close and JoBeth Williams, wanting to give them characters that complimented their real personality. However, his attempt to give the actresses characters similar to themselves backfired, as both women were unhappy with the characters they ended up with. Specifically, both Close and Williams believed that their characters were too plain and boring, especially compared to the sarcastic, chain-smoking lawyer Meg.
The wildcard Meg was played by Mary Kay Place, but both other actresses auditioned for the movie with that part in mind. As Glenn Close explained on the DVD extras: “I really wanted to play that part because it was something I could really relate to.” Williams elaborated by saying: “[We] both felt like [our characters] were mommy and daddy, so homey and normal. But Larry kept saying, ‘No, you’re the glue!’”
7. The cast bonded by sharing a meal together for real
As part of the lengthy rehearsal process of The Big Chill, the cast were asked to make a meal together. It was originally supposed to be a bonding exercise, but the cast decided to cook and serve the food in character, all by themselves. After watching the beginning of the exercise, writer and director Lawrence Kasdan decided to leave them to it, thinking it would be a more valuable workshop if they weren’t observed.
It turns out that his instincts were pretty spot on, since the whole cast found the exercise pretty meaningful. The cast emerged over five hours later, after making the meal and eating together, just as they believed their characters would have. Discussing the important rehearsal moment, Kasdan later said: “For five hours they remained in character without any authority figure, without any director to tell them if they were behaving or reacting in the correct way according to the writer’s or director’s ideas.”
6. There’s a reason why an octopus motif features throughout the film
If you’ve seen The Big Chill more than once, or if you were just watching very closely, you might have noticed an unusual motif in the film. Throughout the movie, there are visual nods to octopuses scattered around in the home decor, and the choice is far more intentional than you might think. Essentially, the octopus motif was chosen because it’s the perfect visual metaphor for the whole film, even if it needs a little explaining.
To put it simply, an octopus has eight tentacles, which are all connected by a central body. Similarly, the cast of friends are all interconnected, even though they have tried to separate and go in different directions in their lives. They are all linked and drawn back together by their connection to Alex, who acts as the body of the octopus, holding them in place.
5. Kevin Kline met his wife during the film’s auditions
Kevin Kline met Phoebe Cates during The Big Chill’s auditions, when the Gremlins and Fast Times at Ridgemont High star auditioned for the part of Chloe. Unfortunately, Cates didn’t get to play the role, as the character of Chloe was eventually played by Meg Tilly instead. Cates being passed over for the part obviously didn’t hurt her relationship with Kline though, as the two definitely hit it off.
Though they were both dating other people at the time, they reconnected and began dating each other just two years later. The pair got married in 1989, and have been together ever since, having had both a son and a daughter together. The two children even appeared alongside both their parents in 2001, when all four won roles in The Anniversary Party.
4. Kasdan came up with the title while filming Body Heat
If you’ve never seen the movie, then hearing the title The Big Chill might send you in completely the wrong direction when it comes to guessing what it’s about. After all, The Big Chill isn’t set somewhere extremely cold, it isn’t about some terrifying snow-related natural disaster, and there aren’t a ton of people relaxing in the movie either. However, director Lawrence Kasdan came up with the name whilst filming another movie, specifically 1981’s Body Heat.
While filming, Kasdan would often hang out with the cast of another movie filming on the adjacent lot, and the group would have some pretty heavy discussions about life. In particular, one of the cast described the feeling of growing into adulthood and realising you will never fulfil your full potential. He christened that feeling ‘the big chill’, and Kasdan immediately took the name and concept to heart.
3. It was nominated for three Academy Awards
With a stellar cast featuring screen veterans like Glenn Close and Jeff Goldblum, and the writer responsible for Raiders of the Lost Arc at the helm, it’s not surprising that The Bill Chill did well at the Oscars. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Glenn Close, and Best Screenplay. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Comedy or Musical Motion Picture, as well as a nomination in the category of Best Screenplay.
It was also nominated for a BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay, but unfortunately, the film didn’t win in any of the categories. The Big Chill did take home some wins though, as Lawrence Kasdan took home the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also won the award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen, at the Writers Guild of America Awards.
2. Glenn Close made awards history with the film
The Big Chill was part of the reason that Glenn Close became the first actress to be nominated for a Tony Award, an Emmy Award and an Academy Award in the same year. Unfortunately, despite now having been nominated for six Oscars, Close has yet to win one, meaning she is not yet a recipient of the legendary EGOT. To make things even more frustrating for Close, she was nominated for an Academy Award the year before The Big Chill, for The World According to Garp.
She was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress the year after, for her work on The Natural, which she also lost out on. In total, Glenn Close has been nominated for 7 Academy Awards, most recently in 2019, but has won none of them. She has, however, won three Golden Globes, for The Lion in Winter, Damages, and The Wife.
1. It was adapted into a TV series
Two years after it was released into cinemas, The Big Chill was adapted into a TV series called Hometown, which was cancelled after just nine episodes due to low ratings. The film was also a big influence on the TV series Thirtysomething, which aired for 85 episodes between 1987 and 1991. Hometown follows Ben and Mary, a devoted couple who have been together since college, but have never married.
They finally send out their wedding invitation to the surprise of their friends, resulting in the whole college gang getting back together again. The premise is a lot more lighthearted than that of The Big Chill, but it maintains a similar focus on drama and evolving relationships, just far less successfully.