STAGE TO SCREEN: Now About These Women

STAGE TO SCREEN: Now About These Women No matter when or how you do it, Miss Julie takes a while to get produced. After 16 frustrating years, August Strindberg finally had to create a theater in Copenhagen to see his 1888 masterpiece of shifting, almost feral class and gender warfare get produced. Mike Figgis has intermittently spent the last five years developing his own version of the play. He first read Helen Cooper's stage adaptation in 1994 and instantly wanted to direct it. "Originally he wanted to do a stage version," says Cooper, "but I said, `If you love it so much, why don't you do a film?'" But then came the Academy Award-winning "Leaving Las Vegas," followed by various other projects.

No matter when or how you do it, Miss Julie takes a while to get produced. After 16 frustrating years, August Strindberg finally had to create a theater in Copenhagen to see his 1888 masterpiece of shifting, almost feral class and gender warfare get produced. Mike Figgis has intermittently spent the last five years developing his own version of the play. He first read Helen Cooper's stage adaptation in 1994 and instantly wanted to direct it. "Originally he wanted to do a stage version," says Cooper, "but I said, `If you love it so much, why don't you do a film?'" But then came the Academy Award-winning "Leaving Las Vegas," followed by various other projects.

Once the cast and crew was finally assembled earlier this year, the shoot itself was extremely fast -- two weeks of rehearsals, followed by only three weeks of filming, less than half the usual amount. As befits its theatrical origins, "Miss Julie" (which opens in limited release Dec. 10) was shot in sequence and in an extremely confined space -- all but maybe 15 minutes of the film take place in the servants' kitchen. "The decision was consciously made not to open it up, says Cooper, "but rather to keep it claustrophobic, in the kitchen." Figgis accentuated that cloistered feeling by trailing the actors with two hand-held Super 16mm cameras, with both cameras displaying one climactic scene simultaneously. Except for the opening credits, a brief dance and one venomous song sung by the servants, the entire film focuses on three characters: Julie (Saffron Burrows), the mistress of the house; Jean (Peter Mullan), her footman; and Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Jean's fiancee.

Cooper says she found she approached the notoriously misogynistic Strindberg with more than a little trepidation when she began translating Miss Julie for the Greenwich Theatre. As she researched his life and work, however, she found a modernist sensibility that made his women, with all their faults, more approachable. "Strindberg, as a misogynist, took women far more seriously than Ibsen, for example, who invariably turned them into heroines. Strindberg took women off their pedestals." This down-to-earth quality helped inform Cooper's raw, stripped-town translation, which has been pared down even further for the film. She says her goal was to make the screenplay "as sparse as possible."

Cooper came to writing rather late in the game -- her extensive acting career includes playing Celia to Fiona Shaw's Rosalind and Hermione to Jim Broadbent's Leontes, both at the Old Vic -- but her second career has begun to flourish. Several projects may turn into films next year, including a two-part BBC radio play called Mothers at the Gate, and she has a new idea for a play that she's eager to start on. Meanwhile, Figgis appears to have gotten a taste for fast, cheap filmmaking: His next project, "Time Code 2000," is also being done with handheld Super 16mm cameras; the improvisatory film stars Burrows, Salma Hayek and Jeanne Tripplehorn.

"Anna and the King," which opens Dec. 17, is drawing flak from several Thai activist groups. They maintain that it, along with The King & I and the other permutations of Anna Leonowens' story, is a drastic misrepresentation of historic facts. Thai officials have banned both the 1956 live film of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King & I and the animated version that came out earlier this year, and it is assumed that "Anna and the King" will meet with the same fate. The main point of contention, as before, is the inference that King Mongkut owed his enlightenment solely to a Western schoolteacher. Leonowens, the central character in The King & I, is only mentioned once in all of Mongkut's memoirs, according to the students and teachers at Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakan, Thailand, which maintains a Web site devoted to the various versions of the tale. See http://thaistudents.com/kingandi/ for more information.

The roster for next month's Sundance Film Festival has been announced, and it's surprisingly heavy on theatre-related properties. Among the 15 high-profile films chosen for the Premiere series are "The Big Kahuna," an adaptation of Roger Rueff's Hospitality Suite starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito; and a modern-day, New York-based Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke in the title role. Check out the rest of this cast: Liev Schreiber, Sam Shepard, Bill Murray (as Polonius, of course), Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright and Julia Stiles,. Venora is playing Gertrude in the current Public Theatre Hamlet as well as in the movie; Schreiber, the Public's leading man, plays Laertes in the film.

Elsewhere at the festival, Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" was picked as one of 16 films competing in the dramatic category; Matthew Broderick and Laura Linney star. Special midnight screenings will be held of "Psycho Beach Party," which Ruth Williamson discussed in this column. And the Frontier series will include the filmed adaptations of David Hare's "Via Dolorosa" and Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," each starring its respective author. The latter production is directed by Marc Levin ("Slam," "Whiteboys"). FYI: All of these films except "Via Dolorosa" have been discussed in previous columns.

Speculation around Jason Alexander's next project has long circled around a Broadway musical of the 1955 film "Marty," for which friend (and Merrily We Roll Along costar) James Weissenbach owns the rights. It appears that Alexander is headed back to TV, though -- he signed a two-year TV deal a few weeks ago. In an interview with Variety, he said a TV series schedule would allow him to spend more time with his two young children than would a play. However, one of the possible projects listed for his production company is a Disney/ABC production of the criminally-underrated Once on This Island, which Alexander would direct.

Cutting-Room Floor: Broadway's loss is apparently Hollywood's gain. Director Sam Mendes, who managed to deliver an acclaimed and money-making film the first time out with "American Beauty," has a clear schedule now that Wise Guys has gone on at least temporary hiatus. And don't think the studios haven't noticed; look for a major one to rush a large project into place specifically for him. ... Listen for an extremely anachronistic On the Town reference near the end of "Sleepy Hollow." ... Borstal Boy, Brendan Behan's autobiographical novel and play about his early years in an English labor camp, is headed to the big screen. The plan is to make three different films with three actors playing Behan at various stages of his life. Shawn Hatosy ("Outside Providence") stars, and Sean Penn has been named as a possible future star. ... Speaking of Hatosy, he also appears as the younger Nick Nolte in the film of "Simpatico," opening Dec. 17. Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, Catherine Keener and Albert Finney round out the adult cast. Other stage veterans to watch for include Mamet stalwarts William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman and Ricky Jay in "Magnolia" (Dec. 10); Gary Sinise, Michael Jeter and Patricia Clarkson in the 600-pound Oscar gorilla, "The Green Mile" (Dec. 10); and the Hamlet/real-life pairing of Ralph Fiennes and Francesca Annis, along with Irene Worth and Alun Armstrong in "Onegin" (Dec. 10). And then there's "Topsy-Turvy," which opens Dec. 17 in New York and Los Angeles and will receive more attention in the next column. ... I'm afraid I missed reporting on "Execution of Justice," the Showtime cable adaptation of Emily Mann's courtroom docudrama. Mann wrote the screenplay for the film version, which chronicled the trial of Dan White (Tim Daly) for shooting openly gay San Francisco Mayor Harvey Milk (Peter Coyote). "Execution of Justice" debuted Nov. 28 and will be replayed twice on Dec 5 and twice on Dec. 9. All four of those will be on Showtime 2.

My Favorite Response: I didn't have one this time. The idea of including box office figures didn't seem to rile many people up one way or the other, so I'll play it by ear. If something is doing exceptionally well or exceptionally badly, I'll probably bring it up.

Your Thoughts: Open discussion. Is it racist to glorify Anna Leonowens? Are you excited about the fast-and-loose "Miss Julie?" Has anyone out there seen "Cradle Will Rock" yet?

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