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A Political 'Dark Horse' Becomes a Front-Runner

March 16, 1997|Robert Stevens | Robert Stevens is a Times staff writer

Sometimes he had a month, other times he only had two weeks. Regardless of the amount of free time he had in between writing screenplays, Doug Richardson spent it working on his first novel, "Dark Horse."

After 18 months, Richardson, known for his scripts for films like "Bad Boys," "Die Hard II" and "Money Train," was done with the book.

Now, Richardson is adapting "Dark Horse" into a screenplay. Except this time, the author doesn't have to squeeze in time for the project.

That's what happens when Imagine Entertainment, as well as the producing team of John Travolta and Jonathan Krane, are interested in developing your book into a movie: it becomes a priority. It also helps when Travolta is considering starring in the film.

"When one of the hottest stars in the business wants to attach himself to your project you just say, 'Thank you,' " Richardson, 37, says. "You don't think about it.

In "Dark Horse," published in January, Democratic congressional candidate Mitch Dutton finds himself terrorized by Republican dark horse Shakespeare "Shakes" McCann. Dutton wants a high-road campaign based on relevant issues, but learns quickly that the psychotic McCann doesn't.

"I thought the story was really dark and creepy," says Imagine Entertainment producer Brian Grazer. "It's an odd, psychological suspense-thriller with this contemporary political twist to it."

'Dark Horse" attracted attention even before the novel was completed. One studio, says Richardson, offered to buy the film rights while it was still a work in progress. The author decided not to sell until the book was done. Eventually, Imagine purchased the rights for $1.5 million. Besides doing the adaptation of "Dark Horse," Richardson is also working on a second novel (a "strange cousin" to "Dark Horse," Richardson says) on the side.

It's not surprising that Richardson chose to write about politics. His father, H.L. Richardson, was a California Republican state senator from Glendora for 22 years, and two of his sisters work in politics. Though the novel is pure fiction, says Richardson, the story and characters were definitely influenced by his family's political involvement.

"Politics is so sleazy," Richardson says. "As close to it as I am, knowing as many people as I do in it, none of it surprises me. With the exception of the felonious acts [in "Dark Horse"], it's all been done."

"We all hear about the dirty politics and we all see the ads," Krane says. "But this [book] takes an adversarial situation to an extreme and makes it seem very plausible. That made it a very scary and very interesting idea for a thriller."

If Travolta decides to star in the film (he is waiting for a finished screenplay before committing), Grazer says, the actor would be really good as either character. He adds, though, that Travolta's innately likable nature makes him an interesting villain. Shooting, he said, will most likely begin at the end of the year.

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