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MOVIES : ON LOCATION : Rolling Along, Finally : New director Richard Donner restarts the troubled 'Radio Flyer,' the first feature for the new regime at Columbia Pictures

October 28, 1990|DONNA ROSENTHAL

NOVATO, Calif. — Richard Donner crouches on his hands and knees, directing two giggly boys as they play with a dog holding a turtle in its mouth. The filmmaker is ready to capture this childhood magic, but suddenly, the German shepherd starts gnawing on the turtle.

Veteran director Donner flashes a chagrined grin at cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. On "Radio Flyer," where actors include turtles, frogs and a buffalo who adores Oreo cookies, controlled chaos reigns. "Sometimes," says Donner, "the best cinematic moments are improvised."

"Radio Flyer" is about life in 1969 suburbia, as seen through two boys' wide eyes. It's replete with a red Radio Flyer wagon, pink Bazooka bubble gum and peanut butter sandwiches. The close-knit brothers escape from an abusive stepfather into a fantasy life of magic potions and a friendly buffalo.

Two little stars, Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello--9 and 7--are carrying this $30-million film. The script was written by unknown 27-year-old David Mickey Evans, who was paid about $1.2 million for both his script and the chance to direct his first feature. But "Radio Flyer" had an abortive takeoff: Two weeks into production last June, producers Michael Douglas and Rick Bieber and the powers at Columbia Pictures abruptly pulled the plug and let about $10 million in pre-production costs--plus the cast (which included Rosanna Arquette), crew and David Mickey Evans--go down the drain.

Rumors started flying about why the production was shut down. Some say Evans' footage was disappointing and that he was too rigid with the child actors. Others say Evans was "used" by dealmakers so hungry to own the screenplay that they ignored the risk of using a first-time director. Evans employs the time-honored euphemism "creative differences."

Whatever happened, the stuttering start-up on "Radio Flyer" was also a bumpy start for Columbia Pictures' new owners in Japan. It was the first film put into production after Sony Corp. startled the film world with its $3.4 billion purchase last year of Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc.

Few in Hollywood were surprised when, within days, superstar director Donner was being wooed lavishly to rebuild the downed "Flyer." Donner ("Superman," both "Lethal Weapons") says he was offered "above scale"--$5 million, a new high for a director. His wife, Lauren Shuler-Donner, who produced "Mr. Mom," and "Pretty in Pink," landed $1 million to produce the film.

"Fate came full circle," Donner marvels between takes on the set. And it has. Before Evans finished writing "Radio Flyer," he had pitched it to the Donners' production company. They were so intrigued, they asked for "first read" when he finished it last November. "We cried and laughed our way though," recalls Donner, who read it in bed with his wife. "It was an incredibly pure mixture of humor and pathos."

The Donners, whose company is headquartered at Warner Bros., were pitted against Michael Douglas and Rick Bieber's Stonebridge Entertainment at Columbia. Twelve days later, Columbia won by offering Evans what he wanted most--a chance to direct. "We were so depressed when we found out we'd lost it to Columbia," says Donner, "we left for Italy."

"Radio Flyer" was the first big catch for Peter Guber and Jon Peters, who were brought in by Sony to head up Columbia.

"Shutting production down was a scary proposition," says Bieber, who with partner Douglas made the decision to stop the cameras. "We couldn't hold our cast and crew, because we didn't have any tangible plans to restart the movie. No director was lined up to take control."

But Donner quickly signed on. "Imagine my reaction when Michael (Douglas) called saying, 'It's not working out with 'Radio Flyer.' Are you interested in directing?' " But Donner adds that he felt "insecure" until both Evans and Jon Peters phoned in their "blessings."

In October, Donner relaunched the fallen "Flyer" again, but with his own cast and crew. "I wanted to start fresh," he explains. "If you're directing a picture, you have to see it through your own eyes." The Donners also moved the film from Pacoima to a Navy-owned tract housing development in Novato, north of San Francisco. "In Novato, you can't see the air. It's the (San Fernando) Valley 20 years ago."

Outwardly, Evans shows no hard feelings and Columbia's given him incentive not to: He's one of the film's executive producers (along with Douglas and Bieber), has points in its profits and a fat two-year deal with the studio.

Donner's vision of the film differs from Evans', and the young screenwriter was asked to restructure the story and lighten some of its painful moments. The script is now dubbed the "The Donner Draft." Almost daily, Evans sits next to Donner, rewriting some dialogue, advising and learning. Evans, who saw "Superman" 11 times, affectionately calls Donner his "mentor."

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