STAGE TO SCREEN: Taking Directions

STAGE TO SCREEN: Taking Directions Stephen Daldry will join some pretty distinguished company when “Billy Elliot,” his highly anticipated boy-meets-ballet movie, opens in limited release on Oct. 13.

Stephen Daldry will join some pretty distinguished company when “Billy Elliot,” his highly anticipated boy-meets-ballet movie, opens in limited release on Oct. 13.

This last year was unusually fruitful for major theater directors looking to take a crack at the film world. Julie Taymor, Matthew Warchus, Scott Elliott and, most notably, Sam Mendes all made their major motion picture debuts. It’s not terribly surprising: With virtually every major studio setting up a Miramax-like indie distributor, it’s a good market for character-and dialogue-driven (also known as “cheap”) movies. While numerous directors have headed to Hollywood in the past, from Elia Kazan to Mike Nichols to Gene Saks, the floodgates have opened in the last few years. Nicholas Hytner got things rolling in 1994 when he directed “The Madness of King George,” and Jerry Zaks followed suit two years later with “Marvin’s Room.” (Both were adaptations of plays, although Zaks hadn’t directed the original.)

Now Daldry, who made a big splash a few years ago with An Inspector Calls and recently directed David Hare in Via Dolorosa, joins those ranks. I hope to speak with him after the film opens, but in the meantime, I thought I’d check in on this crop of directors and see what we can look forward to seeing from them next. In almost every case, it looks like they’re not straying too far from the stage.

Of the group, Elliott (Present Laughter, the Roundabout Three Sisters) was the easiest to find; he’s in New York right now, having just started rehearsals for a New Group production of Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw,” featuring Chloe Sevigny, Dylan Baker, Peter Frechette and Lisa Emery. (It opens Nov. 12.) Like many of these directors, Elliott has a base of operations that he often returns to when he wants to do stage work.

Elliott says the quick turnaround of a project like What the Butler Saw is in marked contrast to his debut film, “A Map of the World.” He finished filming it more than 18 months ago but is still doing press junkets in various European markets, where the Sigourney Weaver/Julianne Moore film is just now opening. Given the long time that each film project takes -- he received the book of “A Map of the World” three years ago -- Elliott is very cautious about his next movie. “When you commit to something,” he says, “you have to be 100 percent in love with it.” He has a few smaller film projects that are close to being ready, but he’s especially excited about what he calls a “huge Project X” for Warner Bros. “I don’t want to say anything too specific until it’s locked up, but it’s a huge passion of mine. Right now I’m casting it, and I’m having a lot of luck.” Like every other director in Hollywood, Elliott could find his plans seriously disrupted next summer. That’s when WGA and SAG (the film equivalents of the Dramatists Guild and Actor’s Equity) are threatening to go on strike. This has the studios terrified, and everyone is scrambling to put projects together and get them rolling in the extremely near future. The fear is that work will stop in the middle of filming a $70 million project; several studios have stepped up their production schedule so that they’ll have theater-ready product no matter what happens. So the timing is great for small-scale pictures that could leap right into production, but large-scale studio efforts will be more likely to hang back and see what happens. Elliott says “Project X” definitely qualifies in the latter category. No matter what happens with it or the smaller films, though, he has his next stage project lined up. It looks like he’ll return to the Roundabout next year to direct The Women.

Taymor proved a little harder to reach. She’s currently in Los Angeles, readying the West Coast production of The Lion King for its Oct. 19 debut. The incredible success of the Disney musical instantly vaulted this longtime off-Broadway denizen to the top of a lot of lists, and her first foray into Hollywood didn’t disappoint. “Titus,” a phantasmagoric and grisly retelling of Titus Andronicus, crackled with theatrical life. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell all that well, nor did her next stage production, a Broadway remounting of the commedia dell’arte play The Green Bird. But that hasn’t stopped various producers from plying her to join on their next film project. Various sources have Taymor:

• Developing a movie of Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman with Fox Entertainment. This would apparently be a reconceptualization of a production she directed in Los Angeles in 1995, much as “Titus” stemmed from her 1994 Titus Andronicus at Theater for a New Audience.

• Joining forces with Disney once again, this time to stage “Pinocchio.” After playing it awfully safe with Beauty and the Beast, the newly emboldened Disney would clearly like to repeat its critical success by linking respected directors with its big musicals. James Lapine has brought “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to the stage, and Matthew Bourne (who wowed audiences with his male Swan Lake a few years ago) may do the same for “The Little Mermaid.” According to some reports, Tina Landau was approached at one point about “Pinocchio,” but Taymor would appear to have an edge within Disney.

• Directing a film biography of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo for Miramax, starring Salma Hayek. Alfred Molina has long been angling to play Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera; among the other actors tentatively involved are Antonio Banderas, Ashley Judd and Edward Norton. (Norton would have a cameo as Nelson Rockefeller, who John Cusack played to Ruben Blades’ Rivera last year in “Cradle Will Rock.”)

A spokeswoman for Taymor insisted that none of these projects is confirmed, but I have a hunch that the Kahlo biography is the most likely to surface next. For one thing, Francis Ford Coppola has been trying to assemble a competing Kahlo movie, this one starring Jennifer Lopez; given her popularity, it would seem unlikely that the Miramax project would move ahead unless it were the first one out of the gate. The possible strikes are another concern: If they want to put something this big together, they need to start shooting by the beginning of March, which means preproduction would need to start now.

Of all these big-shot directors, the one that springs to mind first is Mendes. With the critical and commercial success of last year’s “American Beauty,” he became arguably the most in-demand theatre director in Hollywood since Mike Nichols. What’s he been up to since then? Well, he announced right after winning the Oscar that he would direct Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse, his London theater, this fall. That plan fell by the wayside when he picked up To the Green Fields Beyond, a World War I script by an unknown writer. Mendes reportedly announced that “Shakespeare can wait” and launched into this ensemble drama, his first stage effort since The Blue Room (if you don’t count the Wise Guys workshop). Despite opening last week to mixed reviews, To the Green Fields Beyond could move to New York; producers Elizabeth Williams and Anita Waxman have a first-look deal with the Donmar.

But any transfer may be stymied, since it looks like Mendes' next movie -- the second in his contract with Dreamworks -- is set. He had been working with Scott Frank ("Out of Sight") on an original thriller script called "The Lookout," but he'll instead be directing Tom Hanks in "Road to Perdition," a 1930s gangster drama based on a comic book. In what sounds like a significant change of pace for Hanks, he would play a tormented gangster looking to avenge the death of his wife and children. Filming is scheduled to begin next February, with a Thanksgiving 2001 release penciled in.

In all of these cases, bear in mind that the studios are very serious about the work stoppage. If you don’t hear confirmation of these projects by Christmas, they probably won’t happen until after the labor issues are resolved. I plan to track down the rest of this batch in time for my next column, but remember that Warchus and Hytner both have major New York musicals scheduled for next year.

*

Directors aren’t the only behind-the-scenes types who bounce from stage to screen -- or who need to factor the possible strikes into their plans. Scott Rudin, whose recent producing credits include both Copenhagen and “Shaft,” has no fewer than seven film projects potentially set to roll before the spring. Two of these have scripts from familiar names: Paul Rudnick has written “Marci X,” and David Hare may have next year’s prestige picture on his hands. He has adapted Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” which won the Pulitzer Prize last year, and listen to this cast: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow would play women from three different periods, stretching back to Streep as Virginia Woolf. (Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” plays a prominent role in all three interlocking stories.) If all the pieces fall into place, this could be big.

My Favorite Thought: Danny’s thoughts seemed to sum up the decidedly underwhelming response to “The Fantasticks”:

“It was a mishmash of Oklahoma!, Fellini and ‘Psycho’ (Matt's house looked severely sinister). Opening up the musical did it no good. The soundstage approach would have been a better idea. The plot is so slight that filming it against those Arizona expanses makes it even smaller. Kinda reminded me of the ‘Little Prince’ film.”

Your Thoughts: I hadn’t thought of “The Little Prince,” but that’s pretty accurate. Which of these directors are you most eager to see represented on stage? (And if you say Julie Taymor, where were you when The Green Bird needed you?) What are you looking forward to seeing this fall? Oh, and don’t forget: The PBS “Stage on Screen” series begins Oct. 7 with a live screening of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” followed by a teaser of future events. Let me know what you think of it.

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