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On View : The Writers' Stuff

August 23, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"One million dollars, $1 1/ 2 million for these scripts--it's nuts. There's a lot of time and money to be saved if we came up with these stories on our own."

--studio executive Larry Levy in the film "The Player"

It's no secret that screenwriters don't get much respect.

In fact, there's a joke around Hollywood that the single most important ingredient for a writer to have is obedience.

"(There are) so many stories where the writers are secondary or way down on the totem pole," laments playwright Keith Reddin ("Life During Wartime").

But the writers involved with Turner Network Television's ambitious "Screenworks" project are being given the red-carpet treatment. They were afforded the rare opportunity of becoming equal partners with producers and had a say in every aspect of production.

"Screenworks" recalls television's Golden Age in the '50s, when audiences tuned in to "Playhouse 90" or "U.S. Steel Hour" to see the newest drama from a Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky.

The first of six "Screenworks" dramas premieres Monday with "The Water Engine," written by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet ("Glengarry Glen Ross"). The Depression-era allegory stars Mamet regulars William H. Macy, Joe Mantegna and John Mahoney. Mamet has a cameo role.

Next month, "Screenworks" will feature "The Habitation of Dragons," a riveting Gothic family drama from Oscar-winner Horton Foote ("To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tender Mercies," "A Trip to Bountiful").

The series will continue in 1993 with Reddin's original film noir "Heart of Justice"; another original, "Cooperstown," written by Lee Blessing ("A Walk in the Woods"), and Arthur Miller's Depression-era family drama "The American Clock," adapted by Frank Gilati ("The Grapes of Wrath"). The sixth installment has yet to be announced.

The "Screenworks" project began three years ago when executive producer Michael Brandman, who recently produced ABC's "Neil Simon's 'Broadway Bound," joined forces with Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy of Amblin Entertainment, a partner in the production.

"I had heard through the grapevine that Steven had very joyful experiences working with Tom Stoppard and John Patrick Shanley and was intrigued with the idea of continuing to work with playwrights," Brandman says. Stoppard wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" and Amblin produced Shanley's "Joe and the Volcano."

The trio brought the "Screenworks" project to TNT. The cable network embraced the proposal, which also included developing a select repertory company of actors, directors and production professionals.

In addition to Turner's contribution, the producers found financing from Majestic Films International, which was responsible largely for the funding of "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Dances With Wolves," and who wanted to work with Amblin, Brandman says.

"We came up with barely enough money to make the films," he says. Each film's budget was just a little over $2 million.

But actors were so eager to do "Water Engine," Brandman says, that "people flew themselves in from Chicago (to Los Angeles) to be in the movie because we didn't have a lot of money for which to make it."

One was was Joe Mantegna, who had previously worked with Mamet on stage ("Glengarry," "Speed the Plow") and in film ("House of Games," "Things Change," "Homicide").

"It's hard to find good scripts in any medium," Mantegna said. "I love working with people I am friends with. I have certainly enjoyed working with David."

Brandman, Foote says, "was very daring and very supportive of the film during production. He let us go for broke, so to speak. I would love to do another one."

Working on his "Screenworks" project took Reddin by surprise. Reddin, who has a small part as an obnoxious reporter, says Brandman and Amblin lived up to their promises.

"They would call up and say, 'What do you think about so and so for this part?' I would say 'yes' or 'no.' They had me on the set when they wanted to change something. They would never change anything without having me do it. ... The sad thing will be that I will never have as good an experience after this."

Alan Sabinson, executive vice president of TNT in charge of program development, acknowledges that "Screenworks" will not be every viewer's cup of tea.

"We have different expectations for these than we do for the normal movie or miniseries," he said. "We know they are more demanding and more artful and they are probably, on that basis, less commercial. But we still think there are a large number of viewers out there that want something worthwhile."

"The Water Engine" airs Monday on TNT at 5, 7, 9 p.m.; Thursday at 1 p.m.; Friday at 7 p.m.; Aug. 30 at 1 p.m.; Aug. 31 at 9 a.m.; Sept. 1 at 7 p.m.

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