When tabloid queen Lindsay Lohan was cast as Elizabeth Taylor in Liz & Dick, a movie premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on Lifetime, the gossip-mag press that tracks her doubled in size.
"There were paparazzi hanging out of trees every day," executive producer Larry Thompson recalls. "So while we were making a movie about Elizabeth Taylor being followed by paparazzi, we had real paparazzi following our fake paparazzi.
"It was life imitating art, art imitating life."
It might be going too far to describe Liz & Dick as art.
But the film, profiling one of Hollywood's legendary couples, Taylor and Richard Burton (played by New Zealander Grant Bowler), has a flashy, trashy, over-the-top quality that can be mesmerizing.
There probably will be many Liz Taylor fans tuning in. But the main attraction, for better or worse, is Lohan.
With any other actress in the lead role, this would be just another dime-a-dozen TV movie. But by casting Lohan, Lifetime has practically guaranteed a sizable audience of the insatiably curious.
People will want to see for themselves whether Lohan's first major acting gig in five years can be hailed as a comeback or ridiculed as a train wreck.
Thompson, who coddled Lohan throughout filming, vows that it will be considered a triumph.
"Producing a movie with Lindsay Lohan is not for the faint of heart," he says. "I turned 50 shades of white during the production. We did have a couple of incidents that forced us to re-adjust production.
"But overall, my gosh, relative to the performance that we got, the reward was worth the risk, the pleasure was worth the pain."
Trouble on the set
Lohan, so promising as a child actress, has spent most of her adult life in the spotlight for reasons that have nothing to do with acting, perpetually in rehab or behind bars because of drug and alcohol abuse.
While filming Liz & Dick during the summer, Lohan was often a handful. In addition to bringing one production day to a standstill because she was in a car accident, she repeatedly showed up late.
And on one occasion, the actress was holed up in her hotel room so long without responding to a concerned film crew that 911 paramedics were called in to make sure she was OK.
Thompson signed Lohan more or less expecting such shenanigans.
"Due to her history, we had to make a deal where there were pages and pages of what-if clauses," he says. "What if there is a car accident? What if there is a violation of her probation and therefore she would have to be incarcerated? Those what-ifs were plenty.
"But there never was a 'What if she can't act?' clause."
In fact, when Lohan showed up to work, Thompson says, she gave everything she had.
"Prior to shooting, during prep, she read every book, watched every movie multiple times and immersed herself in Elizabeth Taylor," he says. "She would say to me, 'I'm channeling Elizabeth Taylor.' And there were days, I swear to you, that I thought she was."
The Liz fascination
Surely Lohan can relate to Taylor in terms of living an intensely scrutinized life.
"Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the first royal Hollywood couple that together created an international stir," Thompson says. "When they were making Cleopatra, they were having a scandalous love affair. You have to remember that she was married at the time to Eddie Fisher, who had just left Debbie Reynolds for her, and Burton was married, too. Yet they were having this affair in public.
"As 20th Century Fox was trying to keep a lid on it, all of these photographers in Italy, these young guys on motor scooters, were following them around taking photographs. Federico Fellini, the famous Italian director, saw them and said, 'Oh, look at the paparazzi,' meaning 'buzzing insects.'
"That was the first time that term had ever been used. It started with Liz and Dick."
Thompson believes the public's long obsession with Liz Taylor is twofold: Not only was she very beautiful and talented, but she also lived by her own rules.
"Who is divorced that many times in life?" he says. "Who gathers and collects that level of jewelry in their life? Who gets denounced by the pope? Today, when somebody gets a DUI, we talk about how bad they were. But none of them have ever been so immoral that they were denounced by the pope!
"Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton lived a life of excess, whether it was drinking or spending, and when you have a reckless and wanton disregard for the norm, people find it fascinating to watch."