STAGE TO SCREEN: Not Quite Ready for 'Prime' Time

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Not Quite Ready for 'Prime' Time NOTE: The rest of this column was written well before the events of Sept. 11. Since then, I’ve read and heard the word "unthinkable" several times, and it doesn’t seem quite right. The nightmarish devastation that I saw from my office window Tuesday morning is so horrible to me in part because it’s not unthinkable so much as it is rethinkable. I remember asking my dad when I was about five years old what would happen if a plane hit the World Trade Center. (I have since learned that I wasn’t the only kid who had this concern.) He told me that some people would probably be hurt very badly and even killed, but he assured me that the buildings were very strong and would be OK. He knew nothing about transponders or ramp passes or "flying bombs" at the time. He does now. We all do, and I would give just about anything to be without that knowledge once again.

NOTE: The rest of this column was written well before the events of Sept. 11. Since then, I’ve read and heard the word "unthinkable" several times, and it doesn’t seem quite right. The nightmarish devastation that I saw from my office window Tuesday morning is so horrible to me in part because it’s not unthinkable so much as it is rethinkable. I remember asking my dad when I was about five years old what would happen if a plane hit the World Trade Center. (I have since learned that I wasn’t the only kid who had this concern.) He told me that some people would probably be hurt very badly and even killed, but he assured me that the buildings were very strong and would be OK. He knew nothing about transponders or ramp passes or "flying bombs" at the time. He does now. We all do, and I would give just about anything to be without that knowledge once again.

Remembering that conversation brought me back to an almost primal sense of fear and discomfort, a level of concern that only a kid can have and only an adult can dispel. And it’s back, albeit refracted through 24 years of maturation and experience. It’s as if the boogeyman did in fact emerge from your closet or your family did in fact abandon you at the mall. The U.S. Department of Defense has stated that the old laws no longer apply, and neither do the "laws" of morality and decency on which we once relied. I truly believe that our fortitude and resilience as Americans will see us through these cataclysmic events, but we need to temper that bravado with the recognition that we are, ultimately and always, at risk.

Maybe I’ll feel differently in a week or two, but when you see a friend on TV holding a picture of his wife, it’s hard. It’s very, very hard. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of you and all of your loved ones. If you want to bookmark this column and come back to the entertainment information in a week or two, go for it. If you can’t even bear the thought of reading about movies right now, I understand.

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If directing David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow wasn’t enough preparation for the movie business, Gregory Mosher has received a pretty sobering education over the last two years. I made an innocent call to Mosher’s office the other day to talk about his film directorial debut, “The Prime Gig,” which several publications had listed as a September release. He laughed at the very mention of the film’s name. “Every few days,” he says, “somebody calls me and says, ‘Hey, I hear your movie’s coming out.’ And I always say, ‘Well, that’s news to me.’”

Without getting into all the gory details, “The Prime Gig” — a twist-heavy romantic drama starring Ed Harris, Vince Vaughn and Julia Ormond — started out in the hands of Independent Pictures, an indie distributor that planned to release the film back in February. After successful screenings at London, Venice and Los Angeles film festivals, Mosher felt confident that he had a solid potential success on his hands, despite having what he calls a different feel from traditional Hollywood fare. “It’s a real `70s film. I made it as my Bob Rafelson-y sort of film,” he says of the director best known for “Five Easy Pieces” and other nuanced character studies.

That’s why the crowds at the Los Angeles Film Festival made Mosher awfully nervous — at first. “I saw a bunch of 25-year-olds go into the theatre, and I thought: We’re totally fucked. These people weren’t even born when ‘Five Easy Pieces’ came out. Langorous, brooding shots of antiheros just aren’t part of the Zeitgeist right now.” As it turns out, though, he may have underestimated the audience: “The Prime Gig” became one of the festival’s hits among younger audiences, he says.

Excited festival audiences don’t mean much, however, when your distributor goes bankrupt. “Independent Pictures is gone,” Mosher says. “They sold the furniture.” The rights then made their way to New Line, which would appear to be a more suitable home: Along with its boutique division, Fine Line, the studio has released such similar films as “Hurly Burly” and “Before Night Falls.” But with such major offerings as “Rush Hour 2” and the upcoming “Lord of the Rings” trilogy on New Line’s plate, he says, the studio opted to sell “The Prime Gig” to the Bravo cable television channel. And so Mosher’s first film appears to be going straight to cable.

“I don’t get it, but I’m reconciled to it,” he says. “My take is this: That’s life. I had a wonderful year working on Madame Melville,” the Richard Nelson play that opened first in London and then in New York, both times starring Macaulay Culkin. In fact, Mosher says he’s exploring the idea of filming “Madame Melville” for the screen in 2002.

I’m still a bit puzzled about how a well-reviewed movie with three major actors can slip through not one but two distributors’ hands. I understand how Jackie Chan and the Hobbit may be first and foremost in New Line’s collective mind right now, but what about Fine Line? The entire reason that the major studios (like New Line) set up these boutique companies (like Fine Line) was to create a logical home for smaller, riskier movies. New Line did the right thing after Sundance when it shifted “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” over, so why didn’t it do the same for “The Prime Gig”?

And why does Gregory Mosher, the man who has been involved with everything from American Buffalo to Six Degrees of Separation to Freak, have to hit the Bravo Web site, as he did three days before we spoke, to learn the status of his own movie? Surprisingly, Mosher says he isn’t bitter about the way things worked out. “I’m really glad I can laugh about this now,” he says. “It’s just beyond bizarre. I mean, I don’t think I made ‘The 400 Blows’ here. On the other hand, a lot of good people spent a year and a half on this picture.

“Look, if it premieres on Bravo, more people will see it than on a botched theatrical release. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I meant this to be seen on the big screen.”

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Ronald Harwood seems to have a thing for suspicious characters in the wake of World War II. As mentioned here previously, Harwood’s own adaptation of “Taking Sides” is premiering this week at the Toronto Film Festival, starring Ed Harris and Stellan Skarsgard. And he just announced plans to adapt the Brian Moore novel “The Statement” for director Norman Jewison. The suspense drama follows an aging Nazi war criminal and the attempts by both the French government and the Vatican to keep him under wraps. No word on casting, but may I suggest Dustin Hoffman? He hasn’t had a juicy role since “Wag the Dog,” and the aging Nazi role would be a perfect complement to “Marathon Man.”

Cutting-Room Floor: The adaptation of Marivaux’s “The Triumph of Love,” which I mentioned in the last column, is based on a translation by U.K. playwright Martin Crimp. Although best known for the dark comedy “The Treatment,” Crimp wrote the superb translation of Ionesco’s The Chairs that bowed on Broadway in 1998. ... As many of you know, screenwriting credits are often a bit complicated when it comes to major releases. And while Cheryl L. West did in fact work on the script for the Mariah Carey vehicle “Glitter” (Sept. 21), she is no tone of the credited writers. ... I promised to keep my “Hedwig” references to a minimum, but I should mention the enthusiastic response it received at the American Film Festival in Deauville, France. It won a total of three awards, including the festival’s top prize. ... “Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop” has moved again. This time, however, it’s only being bumped back a week, to Sept. 28. ... Be on the lookout for “The American Astronaut,” opening Sept. 21 in limited response. The cult sci-fi musical, which earned a fair amount of attention at Sundancelast year, stars such unsung theater stalwarts as Tom Aldredge, Annie Golden, Bill Buell and Rocco Sisto.

Your Thoughts: Which would you sooner watch, a Bravo premiere or a botched theatrical release? What stage-related movie do you think got lost in the shuffle?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@cmp.com.