STAGE TO SCREEN: Chatting with Ackerman and a Top 10

STAGE TO SCREEN: Chatting with Ackerman and a Top 10 Hollywood works in mysterious ways. Peter Ackerman’s Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, which opened Off-Broadway in 1999, is a modern sex farce with comic threads devoted to May-October gay sex and the use of anti-Semitism as an aphrodisiac, among other risque themes. So who better than Ackerman to write a family film?

Hollywood works in mysterious ways. Peter Ackerman’s Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, which opened Off-Broadway in 1999, is a modern sex farce with comic threads devoted to May-October gay sex and the use of anti-Semitism as an aphrodisiac, among other risque themes. So who better than Ackerman to write a family film?

That appears to be the modus operandi behind “Ice Age,” the new computer-animated film featuring such noted voices as Ray Romano and John Leguizamo. The “Ice Age” producers approached Ackerman after seeing Midnight. By that point, the “Ice Age” screenplay had already gone through two permutations. After one writer had delivered a considerably darker story, Michael Berg was brought in to boost the comedy. And while that version was considerably closer to what the producers had in mind, Ackerman was hired to do a third pass. “They basically hired me as a punch-up guy,” he says. “They liked my strange little lines for sloths, I guess.”

What Ackerman didn’t realize is that he and Berg would overlap for a few months. He found the idea of rewriting Berg’s work unnerving at first, but the two quickly developed what he calls “a great working relationship.” (In fact, Fox has since hired the pair to rewrite another script.) As a playwright accustomed to having final say of what goes on stage, Ackerman found the more amorphous, collaborative dynamics of Hollywood to be tricky but not impossible: “It’s kind of like being a staff writer on a TV show.” He also found himself providing voices for several subsidiary characters, including a dodo and what’s billed as a “Freaky Mammal.”

Writing is only one side of Ackerman’s professional life. He recently finished a six-month run as one of the three cast members of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (he was the one with the beard on the left, if you can picture the poster), and he begins a four-week run at P.S. 122 later this month in Rinne Groff’s Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat, which is based on the 1981 air-traffic controller strike. Ackerman, who met Groff at Yale and previously acted in her Five Hysterical Girls Theorem, says he relished shifting gears and working on something more dramatic. “This would be a straight, kitchen-sink drama if anyone except Rinne Groff had written it,” he says of Jimmy Carter. “I play this kind of insidious FAA supervisor. I’m management up against the heroes. ... It’s a good part for me after doing the ‘jumping-around goofball’ thing for six months. That was super fun, but as an actor, it’s always great to do the opposite.”

That theory holds true with all of Ackerman’s work. Although it hasn’t been entirely premeditated, he has routinely found himself moving from stage to film, from big to small, from acting to writing. “It’s sort of a weird way to make a living because you never know where the winds will take you,” he says. “That’s why I became involved in writing in the first place, because I was sick of waiting for other people to anoint me with work and tell me when I could be creative. … Plus, when you do lots of different things, people at any given point are always titillated by the other stuff you do.” Right now, there’s a pretty long list of “other stuff.” In addition to Complete Works, Jimmy Carter, “Ice Age” and the second Fox screenplay, he recently wrote a TV pilot for Paramount and is working on a follow-up play to Midnight, which he says — well, hopes — will be a “big dramatic play that’s going to be fantastic.” Oh, and did I mention that he and his wife, actress Clea Lewis (they met while she starred in Midnight) have a six-week-old son? “I’ve got the little one in my other arm,” he told me at the beginning of our phone interview. “It’s very wild.”

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I’m saving my spring preview for the next column, but the real big-ticket items won’t crop up until much later in the year. It’s entirely possible that, when next year’s eight or nine Oscar candidates surface, four will be directed by relative Hollywood newcomers with major theater credentials. Watch for sophomore efforts by Julie Taymor (“Frida”), Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”) and Sam Mendes (“The Road to Perdition”), plus a splashy film debut by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”). But you’ll need to be patient: With the exception of “Perdition,” a July 12 release, these films aren’t set to open until October or later.

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While we’re on the subject of acclaimed films, I finally got around to picking my favorite ten movies of the year. As I said all along, it was a bad year for film: At least four of these wouldn’t have qualified in recent years. Anyway, here they are, followed by ten respectable runners-up:
1. "The Gleaners & I"
2. "In the Bedroom"
3. "Shrek"
4. "Sexy Beast"
5. "The Royal Tenenbaums"
6. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
7. "Sobibor, October 4, 1945, 4 P.M."
8. "Memento"
9. "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop"
10. "Ghost World"
Almosts: "Black Hawk Down," "Lantana," "The Man Who Wasn’t There," "Monsters, Inc.," "Mulholland Drive," "The Endurance," "The Lord of the Rings," "Gosford Park," "Bridget Jones’ Diary," "Amelie"

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I also got around to seeing the IMAX presentation of “Beauty and the Beast,” and it really holds up: The repurposing for large-screen proportions is exquisite. But I question the inclusion of “Human Again,” the sidekick number that appears in the stage version. It comes just as the emotional action is picking up, and it brings the film to a tuneful halt. “Human Again” may be a good example of what Lehman Engel called a “charm song,” but it gets in the way here. Still, the IMAX version is well worth a return trip.

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Cutting-Room Floor: The audience at Manhattan’s Lincoln Plaza multiplex could barely contain itself at the preview for “The Komediant,” an upcoming documentary about a central family in Yiddish theatre history. I can’t remember the last time a group of moviegoers got so riled up at a coming attraction. ... I can’t bring myself to see “The Time Machine,” but I hear there’s a pretty good Andrew Lloyd Webber joke in it. If anybody goes, can they please tell me what it is? ... Harvey Fierstein, who’ll return to Broadway this summer in Hairspray, reunites with “Mrs. Doubtfire” costar Robin Williams in the black comedy “Death to Smoochy,” opening March 29. (If you want a truly unnerving experience, check out the movie’s Web site. Wow.) Also opening in the near future: “Stolen Summer” (March 22), the movie chronicled on HBO’s “Project Greenlight” series. Brian Dennehy, currently starring in the Goodman’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Chicago, has a supporting role.

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My Favorite Thoughts: A lot of readers had very different but perfectly valid reasons why Shakespeare plays get filmed ten times as often as Chekhov plays. Aaron hits on a few good points here:
“First off, Shakespeare is more well-known than Chekhov worldwide. Stop the average Joe on the street and ask them about Hamlet's famous speech, and you'll get it. "To be or not to be..." Ask them about Konstantin in The Seagull, and they probably won't know what the hell you're talking about.
“Another reason is that Shakespeare is more fun to see performed, whether on film or stage. Let's face it, Shakespeare wrote for the masses. Swooning lovers, lots of fights, high drama commenting about the human condition, comic bumbling and language that gets your blood pumping. Chekhov is dense and depressing. Even Shakespeare's tragedies have redemption in them. Chekhov doesn't. Maybe it's the Russian character, I don't know. But Shakespeare on film appeals to the average person more than Chekhov ever will, I think.”

Not to be undone, Philip introduces an equally pragmatic reason for the dearth of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov project:
“I think the only reason that more Shakespeare has been produced is because audiences can't get past the Russian character names. Shakespeare gives us easy names like Romeo, Juliet and Hamlet. Chekhov gives us names like Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky and Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya.”

Several readers rose to Chekhov’s defense, including this anonymous respondent:
“After the revelatory ‘Vanya on 42nd Street,’ I think Chekhov works much better on film. The action in Chekhov is so muted that large productions of his work tend to droop and drag. In intimate environments, however, his character studies can work quite well. I think he isn't filmed very often because too many have seen his work in hostile settings—we're prejudiced not to like Chekhov because of too many soporific productions. A pity. The man really could write.”

But perhaps the most plausible response came from one of my editors, who politely pointed out upon receiving my column:
“Shakespeare wrote 36 plays to draw from; Chekhov wrote five full-length works.”

Your Thoughts: Yeah, but that still only explains a 7-to-1 ratio. Besides, several of the Shakespeare films are essentially unfilmable (imagine the three Henry VI plays being filmed simultaneously, a la “The Lord of the Rings”), so the disparity is even less of a factor. But it’s a good point. (Always be nice to the boss.) As for new stuff, what current playwright would you vote Most Likely to Write an Animated Movie Script? How about Least Likely?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.