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From This Simon, It's Chapter One

October 09, 1994|Rick Fleischman

A comedy-drama called "Moonlight and Valentino" seems to have a few familiar elements, besides simply the moonlight and the Valentino of the title: a cast of big-name stars (including Kathleen Turner, Whoopi Goldberg and Elizabeth Perkins), a plot involving the stars' sharing a bittersweet experience, and a script by a screenwriter whose last name is Simon.

But the writer of this Working Title film isn't Neil Simon; it's his daughter, playwright and fledgling screenwriter Ellen Simon, who adapted the film from her play. Shooting in Toronto has another couple of weeks to go, after what Ellen Simon calls "years of development and at least nine drafts" of the screenplay, which is the first to be filmed of several she has written.

Simon, 37, took her newborn daughter, Nicola, with her on a short pre-production visit in August to the Toronto location. Now back at her Santa Fe home ("it's a great place to be a hermit") with Nicola, her 13-year-old son, Andrew, and her husband of two years, Michael Florimbi, she's clearly pleased with the experience. "I was a little bit hesitant about walking into the room with all of them," says Ellen Simon of the high-profile, mostly female, cast. But any trepidation she may have felt before meeting them was soon put to rest by the actors.

"I had a great time on the set. Whoopi is so down to earth," Simon says. "The minute she met me, she was saying, 'Let me hold your baby for you.' They're all unique, and they understand the rhythm of the way I write, and the way the characters speak.'

Simon laughs a lot in conversation, but she is disarmingly straightforward about the film's tragic genesis. "In 1988, my husband (and Andrew's father), Jeff Bishop, was struck by a car while jogging in New York City. He was killed instantly." Friends and family helped Simon through the sad aftermath. "Most of the time, it was my sister, Nancy; my stepmother (actress Marsha Mason), and my best friend, Claudette. They spent two weeks at my side." A choreographer and aspiring writer at the time, Simon decided afterward that "these women coming together would make a great story."

Many rewrites later, the play "Moonlight and Valentino" premiered in 1989 at a Duke University new playwrights program. An agent suggested that Simon mold the material into screenplay form, which resulted in some changes from the play. "By the time I wrote the screenplay, enough time had passed so that I wasn't so emotional," she says. "It was easier to get to the truth."

Director David Anspaugh ("Hoosiers") didn't meet Simon until the film was "well into pre-production." He laughs as he remembers being told Simon was "a real fighter. I said, 'That's great.' I like that she'll fight for something she believes in. We worked to purify the script back to its original form--when I asked for changes, they always seemed to get the script back to the way she'd originally written it. We were in sync from Day One."

Unlike many directors who wish the writers of their movies would disappear once filming begins, Anspaugh regrets that Simon "couldn't be here for the whole shoot. I'd love to have her around, to be able to pick her brain." Producer Alison Owen ("Hear My Song") agrees. She calls Simon "a brilliant writer. She's enormously cooperative, and she's the quickest writer I've ever worked with."

So how does Simon handle rush requests from the set for last-minute changes? "I have a fax machine; I hope the baby's asleep and I just get it done," she says.

Dad Neil Simon is "ecstatic" about the film, says Simon. He gave her some advice as she was writing the play; later, as the film was taking shape, he told her "just wait" as casts and directors were announced and then discarded. "He knows how Hollywood works--it wasn't real until we had Whoopi Goldberg and Kathleen Turner."

Neil Simon, reached in Seattle, where his new play, "London Suite," is opening Wednesday, said that it's "a delight and a joy" to see Ellen's success. "She doesn't need my help--she's done this all on her own," he says. "You know, when she first showed me the play, I couldn't believe how far she had come--she didn't seem like a beginning writer to me."

Is he responsible for pointing Ellen toward a writing career? "I asked her where it came from, because I don't think the talent is genetic. She says I used to talk about writing at the dinner table, and, of course, when she came home from school she'd see Dad working at the typewriter. Maybe she thought that would be a fun thing to do." Eventually, Ellen and Nancy, also a writer, began to come to their father's plays.

The elder Simon also has some experience with turning tragic loss into comedy, with his play and film "Chapter Two" (about a widowed playwright who falls for a woman based on Marsha Mason). "I know she wrote the play as catharsis. She knows that writing about what you know best is the best way to write." Ellen, adds her father, while not a funny person in conversation, "has enormous humor in her writing."

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