It wasn't enough that Mike Nichols had pledged $1.5 million of his own money in a bidding war for the film rights to the best-selling "Primary Colors," a roman a clef based on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. The Oscar-winning director also had to "audition"--that is, present his vision of the film to "Anonymous," the phantom author of the book.
"I've bought projects before, though never so publicly or flashily," said Nichols, who performed improvisational comedy with partner Elaine May before bringing movies such as "The Graduate" (1967), "Silkwood" (1983), "Working Girl" (1988) and "The Birdcage" (1996) to the screen.
"Overt or covert, I had to have it so I could make the movie that was in my head. The story deals with honor--a subject movies love. Whatever dirty deeds the candidate and his staff engaged in, they're reaching for the high ground."
In the end, Nichols won out over rival bidders Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures and Fox 2000, who had also submitted their ideas to the agent for Anonymous, who was unmasked Wednesday as Newsweek and CBS political columnist Joe Klein.
Initially denying authorship, the journalist admitted his identity this week only after an expert matched samples of Klein's handwriting to changes scribbled on a "Primary Colors" manuscript.
Nichols wishes the author's identity had not been divulged.
"I'd rather Anonymous had remained mysterious," acknowledged the director who, after a budding e-mail relationship, finally spoke with Klein on Wednesday. "Now Klein will be tortured with questions about whether he took notes, whether certain conversations really took place--bringing the book back into the realm of nonfiction. I've always regarded 'Primary Colors' as a work of the imagination. The story has more power that way."
Late last year, CAA agent Bob Bookman sent the manuscript to a half-dozen filmmakers hand-picked by the author, including Nichols, who was too busy with "The Birdcage" to read it. None expressed interest, but the picture changed dramatically when "Primary Colors" took off, becoming a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list for five months.
The opening bid for the film rights was $250,000, according to producer Irwin Winkler ("GoodFellas"), who had hoped to make the movie himself. Were it not for delays on the part of Anonymous, he recalled, the project would have sold for that amount.
"While waiting for an answer, sales increased and bidding became feverish," Winkler said. "The town is hungry for original material--and there hasn't been a mainstream movie in that genre since Michael Ritchie's 'The Candidate' in 1972. And this shouldn't be a very expensive film since there are no aliens landing or [as in "Eraser"] alligators to suit up."
If Nichols has his way, however, star power will drive the budget up. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks (an actor in the $20-million range) is the director's first choice for the role of the opportunistic Gov. Stanton, whose run for the presidency mirrors Clinton's come-from-behind victory. Emma Thompson is the leading candidate to play his wife, a sharp, calculating sort reminiscent of the first lady. Whether these actors come aboard, their representatives say, depends on their reaction to the screenplay, currently being written by May.
"Hanks is a charming, likable, smart actor who knows a lot about interpersonal politics, the importance of talking to people in parking lots and malls," Nichols said. "Thompson, someone whose head comes before her body, is a natural for Mrs. Stanton--a doer and perhaps the most intelligent character in the book."
According to the director, Jack Nicholson has expressed interest in playing the "New Agey" Gov. Picker, who nearly denies Stanton the nomination, while John Malkovich has been in discussions about the role of the campaign manager with a predilection for flashing. Though the central role of the narrator is still up in the air, Nichols said the British-born Bob Hoskins ("He has the best American accent under the sun") would be great as the character said to be patterned on former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. As for Libby, ("a dust-buster--the one responsible for bimbo control"), the director has Kathy Bates in mind.
Industry observers point out that a powerhouse cast--not to mention the A-list director and screenwriter--brings with it extensive gross-profit participation. The challenge is holding onto enough so that the financing entity can recoup its costs. It was less the success of "The Birdcage" ($123 million domestic gross) than a "lifetime of toil," Nichols said, that enabled him to come up with the cash.