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Adventures in Rewriting

Sure, he's a highly respected, Pulitzer-winning novelist. But Michael Chabon has Hollywood dreams too.

June 30, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB

BERKELEY — In a cottage behind his redwood-shaded home here, Michael Chabon has spent the last 16 months turning his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" into a screenplay.

Six times he has sent drafts to producer Scott Rudin in New York, and each time the draft has come back with notes: Try again. So Chabon presses on with the seventh draft, hoping it will be the last.

Literary authors have a long and tortured relationship with the movie business, and it is rare for a writer to maintain a thriving reputation while struggling with the idiosyncrasies of moviemaking to maintain a simultaneous career as a screenwriter. Already a star in the world of serious literature whose short stories have been published in the New Yorker, Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bin) is trying to push himself into the same league in Hollywood.

Leading Chabon along the path is Rudin, producer of "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Angela's Ashes," "Clueless" and "The Truman Show." They seem at first an unlikely pair. Rudin--a gruff New Yorker as well known for his screaming tantrums and impatience as his ability to get movies made--and Chabon, the soft-spoken family man, holed up in Berkeley, tapping out stories filled with so many big words the books should come with a glossary.

But while he has made big money with more popular fare like "The Addams Family," "Sister Act" and their sequels, Rudin has a reputation as one of the most erudite producers working today, willing to gamble on literary fare unlikely to turn into the next blockbuster.

He has spent millions for the rights to novels like Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections"; Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," the adaptation of which will be released this year starring Nicole Kidman; Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain"; and Chabon's two novels, the first being "Wonder Boys," which headed to the screen starring Michael Douglas.

"You bet on people," Rudin said. "I have confidence in people's talent. I think Michael's writing has extraordinary humanity and behavior and detail and character. He's an authentic great writer."

Chabon says he's heard about the Rudin of myth but never seen it. Rudin, he says, has been sweet and solicitous with advice, often acting like a big brother and helping Chabon navigate a Hollywood that courts novelists with promises of big money, sucks them in and then, often, shoves them off a cliff.

"I don't know what would have happened if Scott wouldn't have optioned [his first screenplay], or had someone else optioned it," Chabon says. "I might have had a very negative experience that would have soured me on screenwriting. Cut Scott out of the picture? God forbid."

So when Rudin kicks the "Kavalier & Clay" screenplay back to him, at first there may be frustration and anger. But as he reflects, Chabon realizes Rudin is right. "I totally trust Scott Rudin's moviemaking acumen, so obviously there's more work to do," he says.

Chabon is the latest literary heavyweight to take a whack at Hollywood with varying degrees of success and disillusionment, a list that goes back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, and includes Norman Mailer and John Irving, who spent 13 years with four directors adapting his "Cider House Rules."

Even in that company, seldom has any writer of serious fiction had so much of his work bought by filmmakers in so short a time as Chabon, especially one whose only novel-turned-movie barely made back its costs. "It would make you think 'Wonder Boys' was a big hit," joked Curtis Hanson, the movie's director.

Regardless, producers and studios are gobbling up everything Chabon writes for six and seven figures, often before he has written a word--novels, short stories, even a children's book.

His next novel, "Hatzeplatz," was optioned by Rudin based on a three-page proposal about a Jewish detective married to an Inuit woman, and FDR's plan to turn Alaska into a Jewish homeland. The price? Somewhere around $250,000 for the option and $1 million if it's filmed.

Miramax optioned Chabon's children's novel, "Summerland," due out Oct. 1, for mid-six figures, plus a million if it's filmed. Chabon showed the company two chapters and an outline.

The studio also optioned "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" for six figures in an unusual deal that gives Miramax first crack at the eight short stories in the collection--once they are written.

Another short story, "Son of the Wolfman," is being developed into a movie for the Lifetime network.

Rudin bought "Kavalier & Clay" outright based on a 1 1/2-page pitch. The movie, which has not been cast, will be directed by Sydney Pollack. And Rudin says Chabon can write the screenplay for "Hatzeplatz" if he likes.

First, though, he's got to start the novel.

Becoming one of Hollywood's favorite writers doesn't seem to have gone to Chabon's head. "I prefer to think of myself as a guy who has never had a screenplay filmed," he says.

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