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From their pen to your screen

Documentary series that begins tonight on Bravo does something very un-Hollywood: It puts the spotlight on the writers.

October 28, 2002|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Since the dawn of cinema, the screenwriter has always taken a back seat to the director. Above-the-title credits usually state "A Film by ..." or "A So-and-So Film," and that's the director. "Page to Screen," a new weekly documentary series premiering tonight on Bravo, aims to address the situation by emphasizing the achievements of both novelists and the writers who penned the adaptations of their books.

Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for his "The Silence of the Lambs" screenplay, based on Thomas Harris' bestseller, eagerly agreed to participate in the series' first episode profiling the 1991 Academy Award-winning thriller starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. Still, he couldn't quite believe anyone would actually do a documentary revolving around writers. "When they told me about this documentary," he says laughing, "I thought it was a joke or something."

Hosted by actor Peter Gallagher, "Page to Screen" examines the process of transforming a novel into a movie. Each week the series focuses on a different hit film, kicking off with "The Silence of the Lambs," followed by "Jaws" on Nov. 4 and "Get Shorty" on Nov. 11. Besides interviews with the screenwriters and novelists, each hourlong installment will feature behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the filmmakers, actors and critics and excerpts from the novels.

Tally jokingly refers to himself as "Mr. Adaptation Guy" because he's made his reputation during the past decade as a writer who knows how to capture the essence of a novel. Besides "Silence of the Lambs," he also wrote the screenplay for "All the Pretty Horses," based on Cormac McCarthy's novel, and the current "Red Dragon," Harris' first installment in the Hannibal Lecter saga.

Tally was a playwright before he turned to screenwriting. Having that earlier experience, he says, "made it easier to write screenplays just because the narrative style of the two is very similar. More than that I had a lot of experience in the theater with collaboration and having to make actors happy and designers happy and directors happy so that certainly pays off in the film."

Though Harris is a recluse, Tally says the two are "amiable acquaintances" and the novelist has been happy with his adaptations. Tally says Harris is very aware that a novel and a movie are two different animals. "Thomas Harris said to me one time, 'a book and a movie have different agendas even if they have the same title,' " he says. "That is the nature of two art forms."

Movies, Tally says, generally have a poor time exploring the interior life of characters. "Movies can only suggest. They can't make it explicit. In a way, that's great. I mean if something is only implied, then the audience has to use its own imagination and they get more involved in the story itself."

According to Tally, director Jonathan Demme was a marvelous collaborator. "We were always on the same page," he says. "There were very, very few changes as the movie was being made."

There was one big change near the finale, though, when FBI agent Clarice Starling tells Lecter about her childhood witnessing the killing of the lambs. "In the script as it was written you are seeing her say that to Lecter in a jail cell and you are seeing flashbacks to the event she was referring to," Tally says. "In the end, Jonathan said, 'You know, what we don't need is to see it because Jodie is painting the picture so much in performance, to see it would be kind of redundant. Also, we can save a million dollars by not shooting the scene.' "

In the case of "Red Dragon," he says, he just "forgot" that Michael Mann had made the film 16 years earlier as "Manhunter." "I knew the author was not happy with this adaptation," says Tally. "I had to invent a lot of new scenes for Lecter that were not in the book -- the opening and most of the scenes in the asylum. So that was a challenge I had not faced in 'Silence of the Lambs' and that kept it interesting."

On the flip side of the writing coin, Elmore Leonard, who has penned such gritty and often wryly humorous contemporary novels as "The Big Bounce," "Stick," "Pronto," "52 Pick-Up," "Freaky Deaky" and "Pagan Babies," had never been happy with the first few adaptations of his novels. That hadn't been the case with the westerns that had been adapted from his short stories and novels such as "Hombre" and "Joe Kidd." But the westerns, he believes, were just easier to transform into features because the characters weren't as complex.

"There is not much attitude in the westerns," says Leonard. "There is humor in the contemporary books but it's straight-faced and there aren't laughs in it for laughs. This is the way these people are."

It wasn't until director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Scott Frank teamed up in 1995 to adapt "Get Shorty," Leonard's acerbic novel about a Miami loan shark named Chili Palmer coming to Hollywood and getting involved in moviemaking, that the author found a team that understood his writing style.

"I talked to Sonnenfeld and I said, 'I hope when someone delivers a funny line you don't cut to another actor to get a grin or a wink or a laugh or anything like that because these people are serious,' and he understood that."

Leonard says he really didn't get to know Frank and Sonnenfeld until he visited the set. "We weren't that collaborative," Leonard says. "The funny thing about being on the set is there is Sonnenfeld coming over after they cut and says, 'What do you think? Do you have any questions?' "Normally, [directors] don't even know who the book writer is much less invite them to the set."



"Page to Screen"

Where: Bravo

When: Mondays, 8 p.m.

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