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'Phone Booth': A 30-year project wouldn't hang up

March 30, 2003|Larry Cohen | Special to The Times

Even having 34 of my screenplays produced didn't prepare me for the mad response that would await "Phone Booth." For years I'd struggled to construct a movie that would unfold entirely within the confines of a solitary telephone booth. No flashbacks, no cutaways. Everything would be seen from the point of view of the man trapped inside.

I'd actually cooked up this notion during a three-hour lunch with Alfred Hitchcock at Universal. Hitch had made a movie entirely in a lifeboat, and perhaps his most enduring classic confined Jimmy Stewart to a wheelchair peering out into a courtyard full of windows. Hitch had also trapped Tippi Hedren in a phone booth surrounded by swarms of homicidal birds.

I knew he'd go for the idea, but neither of us could figure out exactly how to flesh it out into a feature. Hitch sent me off to solve the puzzle, which I never did -- in his lifetime. When I ran into him at a party after the "Frenzy" premiere, he demanded, "How are you coming along on our phone booth movie?"

Three decades later, after I'd already sold the script, I attended a Directors Guild event at which Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, mentioned several projects her dad had always wanted to make -- one of which, she said, was to take place entirely inside a telephone booth. Hitch had never forgotten. I wish he'd still been around when I finally solved the puzzle: A sniper on the other end of the line would be keeping our hero a prisoner in that booth for the entire movie.

I'd known better than to pitch such an idea to any studio. Nobody would believe it could work. This had to be a "spec script."

I'd signed on with Creative Artists Agency and soon everybody in town was reading "Phone Booth" and asking to meet me. I was the new kid on the block. Cruise-Wagner wanted to buy the script, although Tom was tied up on "Mission: Impossible 2" -- so I decided to take the offer from 20th Century Fox.

Soon afterward, Steven Spielberg came across the script, which he briefly toyed with directing. When we met at an Oscar-night party, he personally told me, "I'm still kicking myself for not getting that script. If Hitchcock were alive he'd want to direct 'Phone Booth.' " Hearing that was reward enough for writing it. Nothing could ever top that moment.

The original CAA package proposed Joel Schumacher as director, with Nicolas Cage starring. Then unexpectedly, Mel Gibson showed interest in doing both jobs.

Fox Chairman Tom Rothman cautioned me that Mel wanted to change the principal character from a hungry publicist into a crooked lawyer -- which would have required a top-to-bottom rewrite. When we met, I told him he was wrong. But at a second meeting, he had a few clever notions on how to add twists and I told him, "I'm going to use your ideas whether you act in this picture or not," to which he was immediately agreeable.

We hung out together for most of the week and Mel never once mentioned switching the principal character to an attorney. Finally I brought it up. Mel flopped back in his chair and shrugged, "Don't pay any attention to me. Sometimes I don't know what the hell I'm talking about!" But other difficulties would soon arise, and the deal fell through.

Will Smith was now excited about starring, though, and red-hot Michael Bay wanted to direct.

Michael's first words upon meeting me were, "OK, how do we get this thing out of the damn telephone booth?"

My Fox executives went into shock. Within days, Michael Bay was out and the Hughes brothers had been brought aboard to direct.

Before too long, Will Smith abruptly withdrew in favor of starring in "Ali," and the Hugheses were reassigned to direct "From Hell." I began to suspect this was the project from hell. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robin Williams were interested, but the studio wanted to go younger. Robin still wanted to do the voice of the sniper, as did Anthony Hopkins, who promised me that he'd use his "Hannibal Lecter voice." Fox passed. Then Jim Carrey suddenly materialized as star, with Schumacher back on.

I was a happy man indeed when Jim Carrey appeared on "Entertainment Tonight" touting "Phone Booth" as his very next movie. It seemed to be a fait accompli, but within a month Carrey had opted out in favor of doing "The Majestic."

I was getting scared. The studio was becoming antsy about the script. If so many top stars were dropping out, the material must be to blame.

The go-ahead

I was in New York several months later, still licking my wounds, when an urgent call from CAA reached me. "This time they're really going forward. It's a definite! Schumacher's still directing, but with Colin Farrell in the lead."

"Who?"

"Just the hottest young actor in Hollywood. We represent him."

Fortunately, "Tigerland" was opening the following day and I was the first one on line. I felt much better after seeing him create sparks up on the screen.

Winter had set in, so "Phone Booth" would be shot on a downtown Los Angeles street re-dressed to duplicate the Big Apple.

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