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Film Makers in the Mist : Bringing Dian Fossey Story to Screen Proves to Be a True High Adventure

September 16, 1988|NINA J. EASTON | Times Staff Writer

In another six months, Hollywood studios would be in hot pursuit of Dian Fossey's story. But back in the fall of 1985, New York art dealer Arnold Glimcher was the only one trying to convince the irascible anthropologist--who had lived with mountain gorillas in the wilds of Africa for two decades--that a powerful film could be built around her life.

It didn't take much convincing. Fossey, then 53, needed money for herself and her gorilla protection work (while still receiving support from Cornell University, she had been cut off from National Geographic funds). And she had a bit of a vain streak (she wanted Brooke Shields to play her as a young woman, Elizabeth Taylor as an adult).

So when Glimcher wrote to her, saying he wanted to produce a film about her life for Universal Pictures, Fossey immediately agreed to meet him. In December, 1985, Glimcher packed up his family and set off to Rwanda, Africa, to meet Fossey for the first time. They checked into a hotel in the country's only city, Kigali, and on Dec. 28, set off for Fossey's jungle camp, Karisoke. Just short of Fossey's corrugated iron hut, Glimcher was stopped and told to turn back.

"Dian kufa," the locals said. Dian Fossey was dead--hacked to death during the night as she lay asleep in her bed. Now, three years later, Glimcher has produced "Gorillas in the Mist," with Sigourney Weaver starring as Dian Fossey. But the story behind the making of the film, which opens here next Friday, is nearly as strange and complex as Fossey's life in the African mountains, and her gruesome death that December night.

Glimcher, who owns the Pace Gallery in New York, is new to Hollywood, but he has some powerful friends here, including director Robert Benton and talent agent Michael Ovitz. He earned an associate producer credit for his artistic contributions to the film "Legal Eagles"--packaged by Ovitz's Creative Artists Agency.

But "Gorillas in the Mist" was the art dealer's first stab at producing a film. His interest in gorillas, and later Fossey, grew out of his effort to learn whether primates have any aesthetic sense. (They don't, he learned quickly enough.)

When Fossey was killed, Glimcher assumed--naively, he says now--that his project would also die. In fact, Fossey's mysterious murder only intensified Hollywood's interest in her story, touching off what came to be known as the "gorilla wars."

Days after the murder, Universal Pictures sent screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan off to Rwanda to research Fossey's life. The studio, which already owned the rights to Fossey's book "Gorillas in the Mist," also secured the cooperation of Roz Carr, Fossey's longtime friend in Africa.

Unknown to Universal, two heavyweight producers working less than a mile away in Burbank--Peter Guber and Jon Peters--were just as eager to make the film. They brought their project to Warner Bros., which developed its own script. "I was outraged," says Glimcher, who learned about the Warners project in September, 1986.

That fall the money began to fly. Warners handed over a large sum of money to the African Wildlife Assn. to secure its assistance in filming the gorillas, according to Glimcher.

Universal paid much less money for the help of the smaller Digit Fund, founded by Fossey to protect the mountain gorillas.

But at the same time, Universal poured money into the research and development activities of Rick Baker, the makeup expert who would build radio-controlled "gorillas" for two scenes in which the animals are slaughtered by poachers.

Both studios spent more than $4 million before any cameras even landed on the African continent. "It was like a race to the North Pole," Glimcher said.

An independent company, Heritage Entertainment Co., had its own project in the works, securing contracts with Fossey's parents and Cornell University, which financed much of her research. Heritage developed and bought the rights to the critically acclaimed book about Fossey's life, "Woman in the Mists," by Farley Mowat, and had plans for a CBS miniseries.

Heritage and Universal landed in court, both seeking rights to Fossey's diaries and artifacts. Heritage won the suit about six months ago, but by then the issue was moot. CBS, under new management, had lost interest in the project, says Heritage's Skip Steloff.

In December, 1986, Universal and Warners entered into an an arrangement unusual in the history of Hollywood deal-making: They joined forces to produce and distribute the $24-million film. With Ovitz and Warners President Terry S. Semel acting as brokers, Guber and Glimcher agreed to meet with each other.

Within two hours, they had cut a deal: Guber/Peters would act as executive producers, but Glimcher would maintain the hands-on production role. Michael Apted would direct, and Sigourney Weaver would star; both were Glimcher's choices.

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