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Fiddling has its consequences

Another Jim Carrey vehicle implodes as `A Little Game Without Consequence' gets rewritten into limbo.

October 18, 2006|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

The high-concept Jim Carrey projects "Used Guys" and "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" imploded, at least partially, over their excessive budgets. But the comedy "A Little Game Without Consequence," which had Carrey re-teaming with Cameron Diaz and was scheduled to start shooting Thursday, fell apart two weeks ago ostensibly over that most essential of filmmaking tools: the screenplay.

Screenwriter Allan Loeb's adaptation of the original French play and film was smart and idiosyncratic enough to have hooked the director, Gabriele Muccino (the forthcoming "The Pursuit of Happyness"), and the two leads for the Focus Features film. But then over the next month, Focus brought "Sex and the City" writer Liz Tuccillo in to redraft the script before Focus CEO James Schamus ("Hulk") took another pass. Finally, Muccino again rewrote the third act just before the screenplay was recirculated to the talent.

There is some question as to whether Diaz ever read the middle drafts (her publicist said she was unavailable for comment). But she apparently found the most recent draft a disappointing read and exited the project in search of new material, triggering the disengagement of the rest of the above-the-line talent. The speculation by several of those involved in the project is that a distinctive, dark-tinged comedy had become much more mainstream and conventional -- the kind of film any number of interchangeable romantic comedy actresses could star in.

Which may be a perfect cautionary tale of how efforts to broaden a script's commercial appeal can backfire by alienating the very movie stars who would have helped to sell it.

Or it could mean, as sometimes happens, that the actors were never totally committed and used the script changes as a get-out-of-jail-free card. For its part, Focus is drawing this lesson: "All of us are disappointed that the film in its prior configuration isn't going forward," Schamus says. "And if there is fault to be assigned it is very much ours. Given scheduling constraints, we proceeded with preparations in the absence of a fully realized screenplay -- a process that sometimes results in wonderful films but that often ends in misunderstandings."

Mike Rich throws a change-up

Although it often plays a crucial role in Hollywood's onscreen dramas, faith falls somewhere down between humility and obesity on the scale of the industry's most public traits. That goes for its literal definition and its theological one, especially if you're a screenwriter hoping to get a movie made. (No, yelling "Dear God, how did my gritty drama script become a romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore?!" doesn't count.)

But the story behind screenwriter Mike Rich's "The Nativity Story," a film that will have miraculously gone from script to screen in less than a year when it is released on Dec. 1, proves that some players in this unholy citadel of secular cynicism are still eager to take a major leap of, well, faith.

Biblically inspired religious movies have been infrequent at best. As filmgoers, we think Monty Python as often as we do "The Greatest Story Ever Told" or Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ." Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" should have changed all that, but despite grossing $600 million worldwide after it was released in February 2004, it was still interpreted as an anomaly. (If a film in any other genre had made as much, there'd have been a flood of knockoffs.)

But Rich and his UTA agent, Marty Bowen, saw potential. At the time that he read the dueling December 2004 Newsweek and Time cover stories on the birth of Jesus, the 47-year-old Rich had already carved himself a healthy screenwriting niche as a sports-adventure guy ( "The Rookie" and uncredited work on "Eight Below," "Miracle" and "Invincible"). Bowen suggested that his client bring his voice to some kind of biblical material.

For Rich, going from pigskin and pucks to frankincense and myrrh had some parallels, if only in terms of the delicacy of the material. "Sports fans are a demanding lot," Rich says. "But it's one thing to get something wrong with the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. It's another thing to get something wrong with the Virgin Mary."

Rich spent 2005 researching Jesus' birth. After five intensive weeks of writing (he did take Christmas off), Rich handed his first draft to Bowen just before New Year's Eve. Bowen, who had become restless in his agency role and hoped to create films that were an "antidote to cynicism," used Rich's screenplay as his springboard out of UTA, taking on the script as a producer with new partner Wyck Godfrey.

With surprisingly little hesitation, New Line greenlighted the film in less than a month with the obvious stipulation that it be ready by Christmas. (Disney was actually going to co-finance, and had even shown Rich's screenplay to various clergy, before New Line decided to keep the high-risk, high-reward project.)

When director Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown") came onto the project, she suggested that Rich add early scenes that showed Mary as the 14- or 15-year-old girl she likely was before having this monumental responsibility thrust upon her. In a remarkably selfless marketing ploy, 16-year-old Oscar-nominated actress Keisha Castle-Hughes ("Whale Rider"), who plays Mary, has just announced her own pregnancy.

Eleven years ago, Rich was a radio morning news anchor for KINK-FM in Portland, Ore., when his fourth spec, "Finding Forrester," won a Nicholl Fellowship and vaulted him into his second career. At the time, Bowen advised the green Rich to "make movies you'll be proud to show your grandchildren."

"That really resonated with me," Rich says. "There is still a place for earnestness."

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. For tips and comments, e-mail fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

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