STAGE TO SCREEN: Documenting a Shepard Play and "The Producers"

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Documenting a Shepard Play and "The Producers"
 
Michael Almereyda spent the 1990's known primarily as the director of "Nadja," filmed in part with a Fisher Price toy camera, and for his screenwriting work with such luminaries as Wim Wenders and David Lynch.
Sam Shepard
Sam Shepard

That changed in 2000, when his modern-day take on "Hamlet," starring Ethan Hawke, gained the attention of studio executives.

"Hamlet" also marked the first time Almereyda collaborated with Sam Shepard, whose work he had admired since 1978: "I saw 'Days of Heaven' when it first opened, twice in one sitting, then I chased down Sam's books and became a fan." The two writer-directors have had friends in common for years, and Almereyda interviewed Shepard for Esquire Magazine in the early nineties (the article never ran). So when it came to cast Hamlet’s father, the choice was an easy one.

"Ethan and I basically cast the movie together," Almereyda says, "and Sam was the first person we thought of for the role. He had never done Shakespeare before, although he told me he used to recite it on long cross-country drives in his truck . . . and when he saw a chance to do it, he embraced it."

This connection led to Almereyda’s new film, "This So-Called Disaster," one of the more interesting looks at the making of a play in recent memory. (The title comes from a Shepard short story.) The Late Henry Moss, the semiautobiographical piece that opened at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 2000, represented a sort of homecoming for Shepard, who served as playwright-in-residence at the Magic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It also featured an unusually starry cast that included Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and Cheech Marin. Almereyda believes this was a big reason Shepard decided to document the weeks leading up to opening night. "It's common for theatre to evaporate like snow," he says. "I think Sam knew he'd assembled a once-in-a-lifetime cast. He didn't want the experience to vanish without a trace."

After considering and then rejecting some fairly ambitious ideas — one plan involved filming the cast visiting New Mexico, where Shepard’s father spent his later years — Almereyda and Shepard decided to intersperse rehearsal footage with scenes in which Shepard and the actors discuss acting. Later on, Almereyda filmed some more personal sequences at Shepard’s Minnesota horse ranch, where the famously taciturn playwright opens up about his difficult relationship with his father, a former Fulbright scholar and farmer who battled alcoholism for decades. "It became evident how important it was to show the parallels between Sam’s work and his life," says Almereyda, who opens "Disaster" with an Associated Press reporter asking an anguished Shepard about the challenges of writing and directing a piece like Henry Moss. "The whole movie is an attempt, in a roundabout, zig-zag sort of way, to answer the question.

"It became clear to me that Sam was wrestling with ghosts. And you can’t really lay those ghosts to rest, no matter what you do."

The level of access toward a rehearsal of any sort, let alone one with such giants as Shepard, Penn and Nolte, is astonishing. But theatre buffs will find much to enjoy beyond the autobiographical glimpses and the rehearsal sequences. "Disaster" uses photo montages to go back to Shepard’s earliest collaborations with the likes of T-Bone Burnett (who also composed the Late Henry Moss score) and Joseph Chaikin. Almereyda also includes an insightful sequence in which Shepard raves about lighting designer Johnny Dodd. "Sam talks about him as a creative force in a way that he doesn’t talk about many people," Almereyda says of Dodd. "That act of retrieval was important to me."

When he was done filming, Almereyda had 140 hours of footage to work with. The end result, clocking in at less than 90 minutes, has an energetic, lived-in feel. "I wanted to keep the movie raw and light on its feet," he says of his fast-and-loose style. "I wanted it to seem as if were edited over the weekend, whereas it actually took two years."

"This So-Called Disaster" opens April 21 at New York’s Film Forum. The star power — it’s Penn’s first release since his Oscar win for "Mystic River" — should pave the way for a wider release. The film richly deserves it.

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I have said very little about the much-discussed "Producers" movie thus far. Why? Maybe it’s, in part, because I love the original movie and don’t particularly see the need, but I generally take a very skeptical approach to any huge-budget movie musical. For every "Chicago" or "Evita" that comes to fruition, there have been at least two "Rent," "Les Misérables," "Into the Woods" or "Urinetown" adaptations that get knocked around, generate 10,000 chat-room discussions and then disappear.

But news that surfaced in the last week has begun to convince me otherwise about "The Producers." In my opinion, the movie versions don’t really hit their stride until the star wattage gets calibrated to a realistic level. "Chicago" went through a dizzying number of huge names — Liza, Goldie, Babs, etc., etc. — for 27 years before settling on two legitimate A-listers (Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger), two mid-level people (John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah) and one in-betweener (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

So when Nicole Kidman joined Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the projected "Producers" cast, my reaction was fairly skeptical. All you need to do is cast John Travolta as Roger DeBris, Anthony Hopkins as Franz Liebkind and Hugh Jackman as Carmen Ghia, and you’ve got a star-studded megamusical that will never happen.

Not so fast, though. Yes, Kidman seems to be on board as Ulla. But Variety has reported that Gary Beach and Roger Bart will reprise their stage roles as Roger and Carmen, and Will Ferrell may take on the role of Franz. This changes everything: When you average out the two casts, this is actually a less glittery cast than "Chicago" ultimately ended up with. (It’s easy to forget, but Lane and Broderick really aren’t huge names outside the theatre community.) Fewer stars means a smaller budget, which greatly increases the odds of "The Producers" coming to a multiplex near you.

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It’s a good month to catch people on the big screen that, by rights, you ought to be able to see onstage. Mary-Louise Parker, whose Broadway revival of Reckless is now on hold until the fall, is in the limited-release dark comedy "Saved!" (April 23). And, "The Alamo" (April 19) features not one but two erstwhile Bricks: Jason Patric, whose Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stint on Broadway ended a few weeks early, and Patrick Wilson, who just pulled out of this summer’s Kennedy Center production. Listen for Judi Dench and Sarah Jessica Parker (and an Alan Menken score) in "Home on the Range" (April 2), and watch for Susan Egan in the Jennifer Garner romantic comedy "13 Going on 30" (April 23). And Stephen Spinella and Alec Mapa aren’t the only draws in "Connie and Carla" (April 16) — this "Some Like It Hot"-meets "Victor/Victoria"-meets-"Happy, Texas" comedy also features Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette as two dinner-theatre singers who go undercover as drag queens.

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My Favorite Thoughts: Wow, there are a lot of Forever Plaid fans out there! A lot of people chimed in with casting suggestions; they tended to fall down one of two paths, either fairly common theatre names or Plaid veterans. In order, here’s a letter from a purist (Frank) and a new-generation type (Eddie):

"Having been in a number of productions of Plaid, and having seen seven or eight of Stuart Ross' companies, it would be so easy to name an ideal cast. Roger Befeler (Frankie), Stan Chandler (Jinx), David Engel (Smudge) and Larry Raben (Sparky). (I understand that Guy Stroman feels he's too old now to play a Plaid.)"

"Here’s some thoughts on casting stage talent: Jinx-Anthony Rapp, Frankie-John Tartaglia, Sparky-Deven May, and Smudge-Hunter Foster."

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Your Thoughts: Do you prefer your Sam Shepard adapted directly to the screen ("Fool for Love," "Simpatico"), or would you rather see the autobiographical stuff mixed in? Which Shepard play would you most want to see reach the big screen? And, who still thinks "The Producers" will never happen?

Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.

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