John Berendt’s original 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a work of non-fiction told in novel form, ostensibly a portrait of the antebellum culture of Savannah, Georgia, as told by a visiting writer turned resident Berendt, that becomes a true-life crime story: a rich antique dealer and member of the city’s social aristocracy, Jim Williams, was accused of murdering his younger lover, a male prostitute named Danny Hansford. The book, rich in atmosphere and filled with vivid characters and larger-than-life personalities, became a bestseller, remaining on The New York Times list for 216 weeks.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) was not a typical Clint Eastwood project. The book was a meandering portrait of a town and a culture with numerous diversions and supporting characters and a murder mystery weaving through the narrative, but it nonetheless intrigued the director. “This isn’t the South the way it’s portrayed most of the time, with an overabundance of clichs,” he explained. His intention was to show modern Savannah society as “sophisticated, cultured, intelligent, very much in the public view, people no one would ever think could be interested in sorcery.”
It was Clint Eastwood’s twentieth feature as a director but only his third directorial effort in which he did not appear on screen. John Cusack took the lead, playing a fictional replacement for the author, renamed Kelso for the film and given an active role in the story beyond mere observer. Kevin Spacey, fresh from an Oscar®-winning turn in The Usual Suspects (1994), brings an easy confidence and lived-in drawl to the charming, enigmatic Williams. The actor spent weeks researching the part in Savannah, talking to people who knew the real person and soaking up the atmosphere. Jude Law, whose star was on the rise (he appeared in Wilde and Gattaca the same year Midnight was released), is his lover and murder victim (renamed Billy Hanson for the film). Mandy, a minor character in the book, was changed and expanded for the film, transforming her into a flirtatious love interest for Kelso. The part was tailored for Alison Eastwood, Clint’s daughter, as a way to launch her fledgling acting career with a substantial role.