STAGE TO SCREEN: Strange Angels & The Big Kahuna

STAGE TO SCREEN: Strange Angels & The Big Kahuna When Kevin Spacey won his second Oscar last month a for “American Beauty,” John Swanbeck jumped up and down and shouted, “We won!”

When Kevin Spacey won his second Oscar last month a for “American Beauty,” John Swanbeck jumped up and down and shouted, “We won!”

Swanbeck has been friends with Spacey since they met on the set of “Hurlyburly,” but his enthusiasm wasn’t entirely selfless. When anyone asked what Spacey would be doing next, he mentioned that his new movie was coming out April 28. That movie, “The Big Kahuna,” marks Swanbeck’s directorial debut, and Swanbeck couldn’t be happier about the timing.

Swanbeck, who has worked in Chicago as a theater director for the last several years, actually began discussing the project with Spacey years ago when it was a play by Roger Rueff called Hospitality Suite. Spacey arranged for a reading at Manhattan Theater Club, and the idea originally was to bring the play to Broadway. Those plans foundered for various reasons, and someone suggested adapting it for the screen. Swanbeck says Spacey’s cachet was instrumental in attracting the rest of the cast and crew: “Everyone was interested because of Kevin. Once he got them here, though, they wanted to do it because of the script.” Spacey lured Danny DeVito, who had another project fall through at the last minute, to come on board five days before shooting began. But by the time Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street, lined up the funding to film it, there was one little catch: The Iceman Cometh.

The window for filming “Kahuna” came in the middle of Iceman rehearsals, so Spacey shuttled back and forth between rehearsals and shooting. Swanbeck would film whatever he could with the rest of the cast -- composed almost entirely of Danny DeVito and newcomer Peter Facinelli -- until Spacey arrived at 5:30 PM. “Kevin insisted we wrap every night at midnight,” Swanbeck says, “and we never went over.” Shooting was completed in just 16 days, which is extremely fast for any film, let alone one from a first-time director. In retrospect, Swanbeck says, the compressed schedule was a blessing in disguise. “We were forced to work instinctually,” he says. “No thinking, no lengthy discussions, no hand-wringing, just gut feelings.”

The play is sent entirely in a hotel conference room in Wichita, Kansas, where two ambitious lubricant salesmen are upended by the idealism and faith of a young engineer from the company, played by Facinelli. (In his former career, when he was a chemical engineer at Amoco Oil, Rueff spent a night in a Wichita hospitality suite with two marketing people. That evening served as the basis for the play.) Given the tight shooting schedule, it was ultimately decided not to open up the action. Many other locations were discussed during preproduction, Swanbeck says, “but we finally decided to go in the other direction. Instead of opening it up, we tried to go deeper into the room and, in essence, deeper into the characters. We wanted the audience to feel they were right there in the room.” “The Big Kahuna” opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 28, then expands around the country through May.

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On paper, this is the best-sounding adaptation in recent memory: an HBO production of “Wit,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson. Like many people, I feel protective about Kathleen Chalfant’s unforgettable performance. However, despite the Pulitzer Prize and the near-universal critical acclaim, “Wit” still isn’t a guaranteed sell. Equal parts painful death and 17th-century poetry, this play needs any realistic commercial boost it can get. It’s sad to say, but “Wit” probably wouldn’t get produced with Chalfant. Thompson is a terrific actress, and while she may be a bit young, ovarian cancer strikes women of all ages. I say the parties involved deserve the benefit of the doubt. This could be a truly great production.

I wish I could be as confident about “Angels in America.” Robert Altman circled the project for years, but it looks like he’s off it now. (However, his longtime producer, Cary Brokaw, is still shepherding it through Avenue Pictures.) Altman’s apparent successor doesn’t seem quite right: Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men,” Bash). Once you get past the obvious connection -- Mormonism -- the fit feels a bit off. LaBute has been far more successful as a screenwriter thus far than as a director. He seems to hail from the David Mamet school of auteurism: Focus on the dialogue and stay out of the way.

Well, Tony Kushner doesn’t write dialogue. He writes go-for-broke arias of erudition, faith and rage, which is presumably why such names as Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Calista Flockhart have expressed interest in the project. (Streep would presumably play the Kathleen Chalfant roles. While I agree that it’s miserable to see great stage performers lose their roles to movie stars, it’s hard to find much fault with Streep and Emma Thompson.) I talked to a few people at Avenue, and they say “Angels” is still very much “in the works,” which means you probably shouldn’t hold your breath in anticipation. It’s not even clear whether it would be two movies, one movie or maybe even a series of hour-long “episodes” on cable. LaBute’s “Bash” is scheduled to air on Showtime this spring starring its original cast (Flockhart, Paul Rudd and Ron Eldard); perhaps its reception may help determine the future of “Angels.”

Audiences will get a feel for LaBute’s directorial style at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which begins May 10. His “Nurse Betty” is one of the few U.S. films to make the cut this year. Renee Zellweger stars, along with Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear and LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart. Two other films mentioned in previous columns -- the Tom Stoppard-scripted “Vatel” and the Lars von Trier/Bjork project “Dancer in the Dark” -- will both premiere in Cannes, along with “The Faithless,” a Liv Ullmann film written by Ingmar Bergman.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Meg Ryan’s production company plans to go ahead with its film of Clare Boothe Luce’s “The Women” later this year for New Line Pictures. Oliver Parker, who discussed his “An Ideal Husband” in this column, will direct a Diane English script. It’s unclear whether Ryan, Julia Roberts and the other previously floated big names will be involved. ... The soundtrack to Kenneth Branagh’s Tin Pan Alley “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is out, and show tunes abound. Anyone who’s seen the movie of “Jeffrey” knows that Nathan Lane does a good Merman, and he gets “There’s No Business Like Show Business” here. Also featured are Branagh, Alicia Silverstone and London Company star Adrian Lester. ... Steve Guttenberg apparently likes the 1975 James Kirkwood play P.S. Your Cat Is Dead quite a bit. The “Cocoon” and “Three Men and a Baby” star is producing, financing, cowriting, directing and costarring in the film version, which will begin shooting next month. Details to come. ... Of the stage veterans popping up on movie screens, look for two Derek Jacobi films to open May 5, just five days after he opens on Broadway in Uncle Vanya. Sir Derek has small parts in both “Gladiator” (along with Richard Harris and the late Oliver Reed) and “Up at the Villa,” a limited-release Somerset Maugham adaptation. Other cross-over artists include new Chicago vamp Sharon Lawrence, who stars with Eric Bogosian in “Gossip” (April 21); Stockard Channing and Keith David in “Where the Heart Is” (April 28); and, lest we forget, a slew of people in “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” (April 28). Kristen Johnston and Jane Krakowski are flawlessly cast as Wilma and Betty, and Alan Cumming plays The Great Gazoo. It’s the first of two upcoming cartoon roles for Cumming: He’s also scheduled to star in the upcoming “Josie and the Pussycats” film.

My Favorite Thought: Krebsman wrote in to say how much he loved “East Is East,” which I still haven’t seen. (He said he saw it twice on a flight from England. Since when do they show the same movie twice in one flight?) For the most part, though reader response was pretty light this time. Is it me? Come back!

Your Thoughts: How would you film Angels in America? How long would it be? Who’d be in it? Who’d direct it? Where would it air? Also, which of this year’s Broadway offerings would you like to see on the big screen? Actually, you can expand the options to off-Broadway. Pick one play and one musical.

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