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'Whisperer' Speaks Volumes : Bidding for Rights to Evans' Novel a New Chapter in Hollywood Infighting

October 03, 1995|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nicholas Evans was fascinated to hear about horse whisperers and their uncanny ability to soothe the misbehaving beast. And when Evans finally came face-to-face with one of those top-of-the-line equine experts, the first secret he gleaned was the best way to lure a reluctant horse: Walk away from it.

Evans learned the lesson well, applying it to his own beast of burden--Hollywood, which stampeded his in-progress work of fiction, "The Horse Whisperer," to the staggering tune of $3 million, the most ever paid for film rights to a first novel. Weeks later, he chalked up an additional $3.15 million for North American publishing rights.

"I'd been chasing Hollywood for 10 years, and I had made a living and did OK," said the author, producer and screenwriter. "And then it all went wrong. So I walked away from it, and it came chasing after me."

After a middling career in British television and feature films ("Just Like a Woman"), Evans, 45, entered Grisham territory last fall and had the heady experience of becoming tabloid fodder, the beneficiary of good fortune so phenomenal it was splashed in big, believe-it-or-not letters across the pages of the Daily Mirror: "I've sold my book for 3 million and it's not even finished."

The North American publishing rights were snapped up by Delacorte Press on the heels of Hollywood's 48-hour bidding frenzy, bringing the total to more than $6 million.

With a first-printing of 600,000 last month, "The Horse Whisperer" rewarded Delacorte's high hopes by galloping onto the No. 1 spot on national bestseller lists this week. This, in the face of some vicious reviews that drubbed the book "The Broncos of Madison County," an "over-hyped . . . hodgepodge recycling of old movies and bad books." The "Whisperer" phenomenon has also resurrected flak about the Hollywoodization of the book business, accepted by some insiders as a fact of publishing life.

"There would have been a heavy-duty auction on this book without Hollywood, in my opinion," said Carole Baron, president and publisher of Dell/Delacorte, "but I think Hollywood raised the ante."

Robert Redford was keen on snagging the project as soon as buzz filtered from last October's Frankfurt Book Fair to scouts in New York, who were circulating a synopsis. The whisperer is a handsome, range-riding loner who has a romance with a married, Type-A British magazine editor, and he heals her daughter and her daughter's horse after a terrible accident.

"It's many-faceted, a straight-ahead drama but magical, something you've never seen before, with some mystery in it and a great part for Bob," said Rachel Pfeffer, producer and president of Redford's production company, Wildwood Enterprises. (Indeed, some of Redford's competitors for the project thought so too--they pitched him in the role.)

Producer Scott Rudin at Paramount had already volleyed an opening bid of $200,000, which he raised to $1 million in the hope of nudging the project off the market. By the time CAA's Bob Bookman was brought in to negotiate the film rights, Michael Lynton, Hollywood Pictures president, had matched Rudin's bid on behalf of Redford and Wildwood, and producers Wendy Finerman and Peter Guber at TriStar had also entered the fray.

"It was a free-for-all," Pfeffer said.

Evans' British agent, A. P. Watt, enlisted Bookman to deal with the book, in part because Evans had been a relative nonentity at ICM in his earlier life as a struggling screenwriter.

*

When Bookman capped bids at $3 million, the horse race included Jon Peters and Warner Bros. Evans selected the winner, interviewing suitors by phone from his home in London, where he lives with his zoologist, health-activist wife and three teen-age children. (Rudin, who'd teamed up with Sydney Pollack at Paramount, dropped out at the last minute.) Peters reportedly tried to increase the ante to $3.5 million after the deadline, and when that failed, jockeyed for last place on Evans' call list, with his people saying he was on a plane, "circling the Warner's lot until we get to go last!"

Sweet stuff for a starving filmmaker who'd just been grappling with a second mortgage after another film deal had fallen through. Ironically, Evans had considered dropping the book on the eve of the Frankfurt fair.

"These were people you know for 10 years, their 18th assistants would not have returned my calls," Evans said, perched on a chair in his Four Seasons Hotel suite. "And I had to decide between them, whether I would allow them to give me $3 million."

Evans immediately decided he would allow Redford and Hollywood to give him millions.

"There seems to be a kind of integrity that goes through all of his films," Evans said, the picture of a Byron-esque cowboy in black jeans and long, curly hair. "There's a spiritual aspect to the book which he clearly saw."

Redford said he felt they connected. "We talked about how to maintain ballast when they start reviewing the money and how to keep your focus and your cool above the hoopla."

Redford enlisted Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") to write the script after Evans turned it down. "You have to be very ruthless with the material," he said. "Also it's been such a fairy tale. I didn't want to enter into a different kind of relationship with them and become an employee."

Redford, who has just finished Jon Avnet's "Up, Close and Personal" with Michelle Pfeiffer, may move on to "The Horse Whisperer" next, depending on the progress of Roth's script, Pfeffer said. Redford hasn't decided whether he'll direct, she said.

As for Evans, he's sticking with the literary life.

"I told my publisher my next book is about a man who has a gift of calming troubled gerbils," he said. "And he looked absolutely horrified. And I said, 'But he doesn't whisper to them. He hollers at them.' "

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