On the Santa Clarita set of "King of California," Michael Douglas is hanging by his neck from a rope attached to a dusty attic chandelier. He struggles, choking, kicking and rotating slowly, until his energy is spent. By the time Evan Rachel Wood enters the room, he is still, the dust settling in the slanted afternoon light, the chandelier clinking a requiem that is only slightly premature.
Due in L.A. and New York theaters Friday and expanding on Sept. 28, the $10-million dramedy from first-time writer-director Mike Cahill stars Douglas as a bipolar jazz musician who tries to convince his 16-year-old daughter, Miranda, played by Wood, that there is Spanish gold buried beneath a suburban Costco. The two embark on a quixotic adventure with the aid of an old journal, a geodetic survey map, a compass and an astrolabe.
Cahill, who spent years living in Ojai as a novelist, reached the end of his own rope several times while trying to get "King of California" off the ground. He wrote a draft of the script a decade ago, but it wasn't until he did a revision and showed it to Alexander Payne, whom he first befriend- ed at UCLA film school in the late 1980s, that the real work began.
"It's the type of script that if Mike Cahill were to have, God forbid, a terrible accident, I would have wanted to direct," says Payne, who welcomed Cahill to the "Sideways" preproduction meetings and set. "I gave it to Michael London because I was making 'Sideways' with him at the time, and I said, 'You should produce this.' He said, 'Why don't you produce it with me?' And I've never forgiven him. I was actually the schmuck producer on set sometimes, sitting by the monitor with my cellphone. I mean, I felt like an idiot. And it's a job I hope never to have again!"
Despite the team behind "Sideways" attached as producers, it took three years to secure financing for the offbeat and challenging film. At least two deals fell apart, one because Cahill didn't want to substitute Albuquerque for Southern California. "It just doesn't look like California. Nothing does," says the San Francisco-born Cahill, who collects California artifacts and reads extensively about the state's history.
Attaching Douglas was a huge coup for the film, which eventually found a champion and financial backer in Nu Image's Avi Lerner. "Alexander Payne, whom I had never met before but admired his work, wrote me a letter as the producer of 'King of California,' basically sharing the fact that Mike Cahill and Alexander were college film school buddies at UCLA," says Douglas, who, to prepare for the role, read clinical texts on mania, learned to operate a backhoe and watched a Thelonious Monk documentary. "I read the script and found it wonderfully fresh and unpredictable. You just reach a point in your life where you try to take chances and stretch yourself and try to do different things. I would say this is a little bit like 'Falling Down' maybe, 'Wonder Boys,' 'The War of the Roses.' "
Dressed in ill-fitting clothes with a beard and unkempt hair, Douglas accepted far less than his usual paycheck and committed wholeheartedly to one of his least glamorous roles. "I let my beard go for two or three weeks to be in solidarity with Mr. Douglas," Payne says. "It seemed like the thing to do."
London first showed the script to Wood when he was producing her breakout indie hit, 2003's "Thirteen." Although she was too young to play Miranda at the time, he already saw her potential to embody a young girl who grows up too fast. "She's a very serious person, Evan, in a lot of ways," he says of the 20-year-old actress who is dating shock rocker Marilyn Manson, 38. "She comes off as wise beyond her years. So people keep offering her these roles of teenagers who don't seem like they're really getting to live out their teenage-ness -- or else, like in 'Thirteen,' where they're living it out a little bit too much."
For Wood, who was attached to the project for three years, the subject matter hit very near to home. "I actually know somebody very closely who's bipolar, so I kind of had a pretty good idea of what it was like and what it does to people," she says. "A few people, actually. All the people I've known, they're not crazy and they're not gone, you know? It's just the ups and downs that really throw people off, and the manic energy.
"Everybody I've known has always been just way too smart for their own good. Their minds just work in a different way and they can figure out some things easier. It sucks that most of the time they've got to be medicated and just numb."
Cahill has been a caretaker to enough mentally ill people -- including paranoid schizophrenics -- in his life to believe that he attracts them. While he's not a subscriber to the commonly held belief in film and literature that we're all a little bit crazy, he does believe that we have a lot to learn from the mentally ill.
"Miranda uses this term 'enabler,' " he says. "It's like this weird tough-love thing that's become the norm. If someone's crazy or in some other way not quite cutting the mustard in terms of society's norms, then we should let someone else take care of it. There are doctors for this, and there are institutions for this, and so we don't have to reach into ourselves and understand them at all.
"I wish that would go away. I mean, they need our help. There are things to applaud and forgive in every person. And it does seem that if we homogenize ourselves too much, we might miss a lot of what the spectrum of human behavior offers."
And what of people who hang from chandeliers?
"There is a painful side, which I touch on in the film," Cahill says. "If you have a loved one who's mentally ill, then you want it fixed."