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The Little Play That Could : Film: Five years ago, 'Scorchers' was playing in a 60-seat Equity Waiver theater. Writer-director David Beaird did an end run around the studios to get his vision on the screen.

July 06, 1990|TORENE SVITIL | Svitil is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer.

Emily Lloyd is a "scorcher," blazing with righteous anger. Clad only in a white slip, she shakes her finger in imitation of actor Leland Crooke, playing her father, before turning around to shake her bottom at him. "That's great," shouts "Scorchers" director David Beaird as she sashays across the boardinghouse bedroom set. "The script only calls for one wiggle and you put in about five. I love it." A scorcher , Beaird pauses to explain, is a Southern term for a sexually passionate woman and Lloyd is doing her best to live up to it.

Five years ago, "Scorchers" was the cover title of three one-act plays, (soon pared down to two, "Thais" and "Bayou La Teche"), written and directed by Beaird for his 60-seat Equity Waiver Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks and cast largely with students from the associated acting school. It's rare enough that a tiny regional play makes it on to the big screen, but the persistent author accomplished this unusual feat without compromising his original vision of the work.

"Scorchers" arrived at the shooting stage with Beaird's offbeat script intact and his directorial commitment unopposed. Leland Crooke, a relative unknown, reprises the role of Jumper that he originated on stage. And the rest of the cast, a panoply of respected actors--Lloyd, Faye Dunaway, Denholm Elliott, Anthony Geary, James Earl Jones, Jennifer Tilly and James Wilder--agreed to work for less than their usual salaries in order to keep the budget below $5 million.

Beaird wrote the plays while working on a creatively unsatisfying project at a major studio. "At night I'd come home and write one-acts and these just kind of popped out," he recalls. "It was just an antidote, a vaccine against all this crap I hated doing. I was amazed that they were so successful." The plays ran for two years, receiving several Dramaogue awards in 1987.

Having conceived of the plays from the beginning as potential movie material, Beaird telescoped the events of his stories into one night in the same Louisiana bayou town. The adaptation, he says, took him about six hours. One storyline follows a vengeful newlywed (Tilly) stalking the town prostitute (Dunaway) who has been sleeping with her husband. In the parallel story, her best friend, a Cajun bride (Lloyd) who is terrified of consummating her marriage, learns with the help of her father (Crooke) that her fears stem from her mother's death in childbirth.

Although various studios pursued Beaird after the financial success of "My Chauffeur," which he wrote and directed for Crown International, there was little interest in "Scorchers." "They'd go, 'Oh it's just a wonderful thing. Loved the dialogue. Next?' "

In early 1988, producer Morrie Eisenman of Producer Representative Organization (PRO) was given a copy of the script by his lawyer. "It strikes a note of reality and fantasy that other screenplays just don't strike," Eisenman says. "I wanted to do something with it right away. As soon as David said OK, we struck a deal and proceeded forward with financing and packaging. That was last September." Ultimately London's Goldcrest Films and Television Ltd. took on financing and worldwide distribution.

PRO was just coming off the critical success of "Bad Influence" which gave the company credibility in financial circles, but the trick that ensured success, according to Beaird, was bypassing the studio packaging mills by going directly to the actors. "In the same way that I had been starving to direct really good material, there were actors out there that were hungrier than I was," he says.

"If you get a script in the actor's hand and it makes that actor cry, you've got 'em," he says. "The tear circuit is all you're really needing to tune into. We thought we'd get one or two stars, but we could actually have filled every part with a star.

"Rather than make a $15 million movie out of something that should have been made for $3 million or $4 million, we went to the actors and said, 'The only way this movie can hope to have any kind of financial success is if you'll work for much less than your fees," says Eisenman. "That was probably the most difficult thing about this, finding the right actors that would work for the money. Two or three times a week we would restructure the casting strategy based on who had accepted or who was interested or who wasn't."

Cohn got the script to Lloyd through her agent and she became the first to sign on.

"When we sat down in the initial stages of making up our casting list, Emily was probably David Beaird's number one or two choice," Eisenman says. Says Beaird: "The minute we had Emily cast, all of a sudden the phone stated ringing."

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