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SCRIPTLAND

King of the world of adaptation

September 20, 2006|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

Scriptland is a new weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters.

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Indiana Jones, meet Jack Sparrow. Jim Uhls, who successfully adapted the "unadaptable" Chuck Palahniuk novel "Fight Club," has been hired to turn "Rex Mundi," a series of graphic novels by Arvid Nelson and Eric Johnson, into a feature for Johnny Depp to star in and produce through his Infinitum Nihil (Infinite Nothing) production company.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Scott Speedman: In the Scriptland column in Wednesday's Calendar section, a photograph of Scott Speedman was intended to accompany an item about the upcoming Bryan Bertino film, "The Strangers," in which Speedman is expected to appear. The caption said that Speedman was returning in "Ocean's Thirteen." He is not in that film and was not in the previous "Ocean's" movies.

"Rex Mundi" (King of the World) posits an alternate present of 1933 in which the Reformation never happened, the Inquisition is still in full swing, Europe remains dominated by the Catholic Church and the rest of the world consists of colonies. Depp, who became the biggest movie star in the world this summer by reprising his Keith Richards-inspired swashbuckler, would play a pathologist investigating the mysterious death of the priest who found him as an orphan.

"It's a noir-ish 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' " Uhls says. "There are murders and a mystery, and the lead character discovers a massive conspiracy, biblical in its origin." Though it may sound an awful lot like a "Da Vinci Code" rip-off, Depp will surely sport less offensive hair than Tom Hanks, even if he decides to base this new character on John Lydon (Johnny Rotten).

From rags to writer on the back of fear

Two years ago, 28-year-old Bryan Bertino was just a gaffer on commercials and low-budget independent films, hoping to accumulate enough hours to get into the electrician's union.

Smash cut to today, and the Texas-born handyman has been reborn as a newly minted writer-director, with a go picture, "The Strangers," at Universal, which begins shooting in three weeks in a desolate stretch of South Carolina on a $10-million budget. Liv Tyler scored the female lead after actresses as diverse as Thandie Newton and Oscar winner Charlize Theron circled the project looking for a dark suspense picture to give their careers a shot of adrenaline.

Bertino's offering ingeniously mixes highbrow and low, realistic romantic turmoil and in extremis primal terror. On their way back from a wedding (in February!), a couple in their mid-20s decides to forgo the hotel for a night in the house in which the man's family grew up. In the midst of all the relationship turmoil that milestone events such as this stir up, three extremely antagonistic strangers intrude (one of whom will look like 19-year-old Aussie supermodel Gemma Ward, in her unfashionably hostile acting debut). Who gets to keep the "Zoolander" DVD quickly becomes the least of the couple's worries.

The screenplay is deft, economical and dread-filled; it couples a detective's ominous voiceover catalog of items found at the scene with the disturbing imagery of the horrible events' aftermath. The script then quickly shifts back in time to the couple's middle of the night entrance in mid-fight, which provides a realistic, original twist on the standard introduction of the victims. With plot and thematic elements that evoke the claustrophobic thrillers "Open Water," "Straw Dogs" and "Panic Room," the intense experience that follows begs each moviegoer to wonder, "How would I behave if it were me?"

"What I wanted to do was focus in on their relationship and then take this outside force that is more of a traditional horror idea of bad people and play off of it," Bertino says. "I just tried to think about what I was most frightened of, and the moments that I'm most frightened are my girlfriend waking me up in the middle of the night and saying, 'I think there's someone in the living room.' So the whole idea came about as, 'What if you went into the living room and there was somebody there?' "

Bertino had submitted the script for a Nicholl Fellowship, a $30,000 prize awarded to unproduced writers by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "The Strangers" got knocked out in the quarterfinals, but Bertino landed a manager and a meeting with Vertigo Entertainment, whose film "The Grudge" had just opened to $39 million. The sit-down was encouraging enough for him to take the risk and quit his job, and within a few days he sold the script to Universal for low six figures against mid-six figures if the film was made. "It was enough that I didn't have to work as a grip anymore," Bertino says.

His good fortune grew when music video auteur Mark Romanek, writer-director of the dark drama "One Hour Photo," refused to make the film for less than $40 million. (He insisted on building the neighborhood on a soundstage that he could control so he wouldn't have to resort to computer-generated cold-weather breath.) So the studio offered the novice screenwriter the gig instead. Bertino will have to fit his directorial debut into a packed schedule that includes writing the sharp, genre-blending horror scripts he owes Hollywood mega-producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Scott Rudin.

To celebrate, Bertino purchased his first suit and a TV.

Back to crime scene in 'Ocean's'

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