STAGE TO SCREEN: Laurence Fishburne Comes to 'Life'

STAGE TO SCREEN: Laurence Fishburne Comes to 'Life' Right after Riff Raff closed at Circle Rep in 1996, author/director/star Laurence Fishburne began developing the gritty crime drama into a screenplay. He quickly came to the decision that Hollywood might not be interested.

Right after Riff Raff closed at Circle Rep in 1996, author/director/star Laurence Fishburne began developing the gritty crime drama into a screenplay. He quickly came to the decision that Hollywood might not be interested.

“The studios are currently looking to making movies out of TV shows, not plays,” says the actor, who has found success in Hollywood blockbusters “The Matrix”) as well as smaller pieces (“Othello”). “So I figured the only way to get something like this done was to just go do it.”

His manager spent the next four years securing independent funding while Fishburne acted in and produced such projects as “The Matrix,” “Hoodlum” and TV’s “Miss Evers’ Boys.” Finally, he was ready to step behind the camera, race around Manhattan and Brooklyn for 32 days and film “Once in the Life,” which opens in select cities on Oct. 27. As with Riff Raff, which debuted in Los Angeles in 1994, Fishburne directed and costars in the film.

One of the time-honored privileges of writing a script is giving yourself a juicy role, and “Once in the Life” is no exception. Fishburne relished the chance to play 20/20 Mike, a desperate small-time hustler who’s considerably further down on the food chain that most of the characters he plays. “I really love Mike. I don’t know if anyone else would have cast me in the part.”

The other casting decision that may have given a major studio pause was having Titus Welliver, a relative unknown best known for the TV show “Brooklyn South,” recreate his Riff Raff role as Torch, Mike’s self-destructive half-brother. (Fishburne and Welliver are old pals: They met in New York 20 years ago and lived in the same California apartment complex for a while.) The third key role, that of Mike’s childhood best friend Tony the Tiger, is one of those extremely cases where the movie actor is actually less well-known than the original stage actor. Rap star Heavy D played Tony on stage, and Wesley Snipes was originally slated to play the role in the movie. Scheduling conflicts ultimately kept him from taking the part, and Fishburne instead went with the British actor Eamonn Walker, who appears on the acclaimed HBO series “Oz.” “As disappointing as it was to lose Wesley,” Fishburne says, “it was a blessing in a way because we got Eamonn.” As soon as he began working on the screenplay, he knew that the play would have to be opened up for the screen. Riff Raff takes place entirely in the hideout where the three characters — and only the three characters — confront one another after a botched drug heist. “It’s very difficult to set a film in one setting without giving the audience some intensity and some relief,” says Fishburne, who created several characters that were only alluded to in the play. (This also enabled him to cast such notables as Gregory Hines, Annabella Sciorra and current “Girlfight” bad guy Paul Calderon in smaller roles.) The action now moves all around New York City, including some terrific footage of the 1998 Greenwich Village Halloween parade.

Still, more than half of “Once in the Life” takes place in the hideout, which presented challenges. As a first-time director, Fishburne boned up by watching older movies that faced similar constraints. “Paul Newman’s version of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ was something I watched a lot while I was prepping. ‘The Fugitive Kind,’ ‘Rope,’ ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ — I watched all these as a way of reminding myself that you can do a movie based on a play. You can do a movie that stays in one place for a long stretch.”

Fishburne looks forward to using what he learned from both Riff Raff and “Once in the Life” in the near future. He has finished the first draft of a new play, which he hopes to finish by the end of the year and produce soon. As he concedes, though, “ ‘soon’ is relative in this business.” His immediate priority, meanwhile, is getting in shape for the prequel and sequel to “The Matrix,” which should begin filming simultaneously in Australia next year .

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Two major playwrights are having trouble seeing their names in lights. Several leading men have considered starring in the movie of Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Shipping News,” with a screenplay by fellow Pulitzer honoree Beth Henley, over the last several years. John Travolta and Billy Bob Thornton have both come and gone, and it appears that Kevin Spacey is on board and filming will begin before next summer’s expected strikes — if Julianne Moore takes the female lead. Meanwhile, Robert Harling (Steel Magnolias) should hear his words on screen before that, but he won’t see his name. Harling is one of the 10 — that’s right, 10 — writers that toiled on the “Charlie’s Angels” movie, which opens Nov. 3. The catch is that there’s a cap on the number of screenwriters that can be credited for any one film, and WGA arbitration ruled that Harling was not one of the five principal writers. If the movie is anything like what advance word indicates, anonymity might not be such a bad thing in this case.

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“Phantom of the Opera” update: A script has been completed. Stand-up comic Ben Elton, who apparently has quite a following in London and is preparing an adaptation of his own play, Popcorn for the screen, has delivered a “Phantom” to Warner Bros. But Shekhar Kapur, who’s on board to direct, has just begun filming on a remake of the romantic action drama “Four Feathers” in Morocco. The cast includes the hot young things of fall 1999 (Wes Bentley of “American Beauty”) and fall 2000 (Kate Hudson of “Almost Famous”), plus the hot young thing of summer 2000 (Heath Ledger of “The Patriot”). So that should take Kapur up through the possible strikes. After that, he and Andrew Lloyd Webber plan to produce a stage musical about Bollywood called Bombay Dreams, which is scheduled to open in Bombay during the 2001-02 season. Depending on how that goes, might preproduction happen during the quiet summer, followed by filming in late 2001? Just wondering.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Sam Shepard plans to reunite with “Paris, Texas” director Wim Wenders on a new film. Wenders has described the film as “a road movie right across the United States.” ... Until it goes disastrously awry near the end, “Bamboozled” is incredibly entertaining and very thought-provoking. You’ve probably heard that already. What you may not have heard is that Savion Glover has a half-dozen large dance sequences in the film, some including Baakari Wilder (Noise/Funk) and other Glover cronies. ... Stage veterans pop up in a few arthouse films opening Oct. 27. Canadian director Robert Lepage stars along with Frank Langella in “Stardom,” the latest film from Denys Arcand (who directed Lepage in “Jesus of Montreal”). And the multifamily comedy “What’s Cooking?” features Mercedes Reuhl, Lainie Kazan and Stranger star Kyra Sedgwick.

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My Favorite Thought: My dear readers were sleepy this week. I got very little mail. Sniff sniff. Directors don’t interest you guys? I haven’t forgotten to follow up my list of cross-over types, but I wanted to make sure “Once in the Life” got covered before it opens.

Your Thoughts: Speak up out there! Anyone out there see Riff Raff? Any thoughts on “Phantom” or “Bamboozled”? What’s on your mind?

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