STAGE TO SCREEN: Warchus Feels 'Simpatico' Before Heading West

STAGE TO SCREEN: Warchus Feels 'Simpatico' Before Heading West Sam Shepard fans have Matthew Warchus to thank for a one-two punch this spring. The director, best known for Art, is directing True West this spring at Circle in the Square; Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly are scheduled to alternate in the two lead roles. First up, though, is the film of Simpatico, Shepard's 1994 tale of vengeance and guilt set against the high-stakes world of horse racing.

Sam Shepard fans have Matthew Warchus to thank for a one-two punch this spring. The director, best known for Art, is directing True West this spring at Circle in the Square; Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly are scheduled to alternate in the two lead roles. First up, though, is the film of Simpatico, Shepard's 1994 tale of vengeance and guilt set against the high-stakes world of horse racing.

Simpatico boasted glittery casts both in its New York premiere (among them Ed Harris and Beverly D'Angelo) and in London the following year but never stars of this magnitude. The film stars Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Sharon Stone in the three central roles. Albert Finney and possible Oscar nominee Catherine Keener ("Being John Malkovich") round out the modern-day cast.

On the night before True West rehearsals began, Warchus and I met for drinks at a restaurant in the shadow of the Public Theatre, where both it and Simpatico debuted. (In a perhaps unconscious allusion to his frequent collaborator Yasmina Reza, Warchus asked for a bowl of olives and proceeded to eat them one by one, Art-style.)

The road to "Simpatico" began in 1995 when Warchus, who had just directed True West in London, saw the Royal Court Theatre production. "I was hooked -- haunted, really -- by the games he plays with the theme of revenge in the play," he said. "It had the outlook of an older man's play. And I thought Sam drew off a lot of cinematic possibilities, a lot of film noir touches."

It was around then that Warchus had begun receiving what he called a batch of sub-standard screenplays. He had scheduled a six-month break between projects, and he used that time to take a crack at adapting the play for the screen. It wasn't until after he and his co-writer, David Nicholls, were nearly finished that he contacted Shepard for permission to direct the adaptation. (Note to would-be screenwriters: Don't try this yourself. Unsolicited adaptations almost never get greenlighted for production.) Several studios declined to fund the project, but as Warchus put it, "we didn't have to do a lot of chasing of actors." It was only after Stone, Nolte and Bridges signed on that Fine Line agreed to make the movie.

Even with the funding and the stars lined up, though, stepping onto the set can be a jarring experience for any first-time director: "There is a real terror, and a real thrill, about arriving to the sight of 200 people waiting for you to tell them what to do." Like Sam Mendes, who linked up with Conrad L. Hall for "American Beauty," Warchus wisely enlisted the help of an experienced cinematographer -- in his case, Oscar-winner John Toll ("Braveheart," "Legends of the Fall"). "The best thing a first-time director can have is a brilliant D.P. [director of photography]. John taught me some very simple things and some rather complicated things. He got me over a lot of technical hurdles."

Warchus, 33, also received practical assistance from Finney, who breeds racehorses in real life. "He was sort of a silent producer," he said of the original Art cast member. "He helped me a lot, because I didn't know anything about racing." In fact, long before production began in earnest, Finney informed Warchus that shooting wouldn't coincide with the Kentucky Derby, where a crucial scene of the film was scheduled to be filmed. Warchus assembled a bare-bones crew to capture the crowds; Finney, who was scheduled to attend the Derby anyway, brought his own costume and three different hats "so that we could match the hat with the mood later on," Warchus said. The resulting shot ended up becoming the final shot of the film.

Although the screenplay is largely faithful to Shepard's play, Stone's character has been given a central motivation connected with the horseracing motif, one that also gives a more conclusive answer to what the title "Simpatico" means. Also, a central event from the past, alluded to but never depicted in the play, here is re-enacted. In fact, Warchus made a conscious decision to shift the balance more toward the three central characters at an earlier age.

"There's a pungent sense in the play of the past leaking into the present, and so we decided to fill in the mechanics of that past." Warchus shot the flashbacks in both 35mm (the typical format) and Super 8 (which looks grainier and "older"), then gradually shifted the scenes into 35mm "so that the past eventually has as much reality as the present."

Warchus has a few potentially big projects in the works, but his more immediate goals are clearer. Yasmina Reza has written a new play, which he hopes to direct in either London or New York in the fall. The timing and locale depend in part on if/when Reza's The Unexpected Man, also directed by Warchus, makes its long-awaited New York debut. And he may make his second movie, an adaptation of the Rose Tremain novel, "The Way I Found Her," this summer.

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Is it just my imagination, or do acclaimed playwrights have trouble adapting books to the screen? David Mamet's $2 million adaptation of the high-profile "Hannibal" has received scads of press, mostly owing to the will-they-or-won't-they casting of Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster; both actors reportedly expressed concerns with the screenplay, so another writer is on the case. One Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright out in the cold is Beth Henley, who took a crack at adapting E. Annie Proulx's seemingly unfilmable "The Shipping News" for the screen, only to see a more seasoned Hollywood hand take over the project.

I was reminded of this when I saw that Side Man playwright Warren Leight has signed on to write a sequel to "The Commitments." He may have a better shot than Mamet or Henley: This would be an original story, using the characters from Roddy Doyle's acclaimed Barrytown trilogy as a springboard. And Doyle's books are far more conducive to film adaptations than Proulx's lyric, almost plotless story or Harris' third Hannibal book, which completely self-destructed by the end. But do we really want to see those "Commitments" characters embarking on a tour to America, as has been proposed for the sequel? It is not yet known whether "Commitments" director Alan Parker would return. Leight's also in discussions to adapt Side Man for the screen.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Bradford Mays, director of the upcoming film of "The Bacchae" (chronicled here in the May 23 column), e-mailed to say that shooting is now scheduled for this May. John Morrissey ("American History X") is producing; casting is pending. ... While we're looking back, this column suggested Nathan Lane for the proposed Dreamworks remake of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" four months before the Roundabout announced that very same pairing (albeit on stage). ... Sondheads take note: A remake of "The Last of Sheila" is in the works. Long before Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's ill-fated Getting Away With Murder, Sondheim cowrote this 1973 film whodunit with none other than Anthony Perkins. Warner Bros. has screenwriter John Hoffman working on a new script. No word on whether Sondheim will be involved this time around. ... Does anyone know anything about a play named Julie Johnson by Wendy Hammond? Apparently, Lili Taylor is looking to start filming a movie by that name in New York this spring. Please let me know if this is something worth knowing more about. ... It's a real quiet few weeks for new releases, but the last week in January will bring a doozy -- "Isn't She Great?" This Jacqueline Susann biopic, written by Paul Rudnick, is jampacked with such notables as Nathan Lane, David Hyde Pierce and Stockard Channing. Can't wait.

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My Favorite Response: One reader wrote in last time to bemoan the seeming double standard when it comes to revamping beloved musicals. If David Swift fiddles with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for the movie, he's meddling; if Des McAnuff fiddles with it for the revival, he's merely adapting. Most of you agreed that both are okay as long as it's done responsibly. A few of you, myself included, remain more concerned about botched film versions because of their permanence. So many people see the film versions that a bad job leaves a nasty taste in a lot more mouths and minds for a lot longer time.

Anyway, Christopher expanded on this concept to suggest another, perhaps more sinister consequence of the trend toward "revisals":

"When Joseph Papp mounted his revival of Pirates of Penzance 20 years ago, he did three very cagey things: He added two songs from other G&S operettas, expanded the Act 2 finale (including adding additional lyrics) and had the score re-orchestrated to include synthesizers. The result? Although the G&S canon has been in the public domain for years, Papp had a new version of the show that could be packaged and rented out for regional, stock and amateur use. In other words, any producer can make the financial investment to purchase the orchestral scores and produce as many productions of Pirates as many times as s/he wants for free. But if a producer wants to produce the Papp version, or if the producer wants to save costs by merely renting the music, then Papp and the licensing agent get their money.
"Most of the revivals you mentioned (Cabaret, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, How to Succeed …) and many you didn't (Show Boat, On the Town, Peter Pan, etc.) feature substantially revised books, orchestrations, dance music and interpolated and/or dropped numbers. Most of these shows are more than 40 years old, and it is good to remember that ALL copyrighted material enters the public domain 75 years after its initial copyright date. As a result, Jerome Kern's Sally is now in the public domain. Buy a copy of the score and the script, and you can produce your own production without paying any royalties.
"Show Boat enters the public domain on January 1, 2003. But if you want to produce the Hal Prince version, you'll have to go through the Rodgers & Hammerstein Library, which controls the rights. As a result, it seems as if every musical ever written is or is about to get revived -- and, you can bet, restructured. Can you think of any other logical reason for the R&H library to commission a rewrite of Flower Drum Song?
"Produce or direct a straightforward Broadway revival, and the money stops as soon as the show closes. Restructure and repackage a revival, and you'll eat for years to come."

Your Thoughts: Are playwrights ill-suited to adapt books? Which of the current group of first-time film directors (Sam Mendes, Scott Elliott, Julie Taymor and now Matthew Warchus) is most likely to head to Hollywood for good? Here's an even better question: What film director would you most like to see direct for the stage? What would be his/her ideal project?

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Thanks to All: Before I get any further into 2000, I wanted to thank everyone who donated their time and knowledge in talking to me over the last year for this column. Much appreciation to John Ahlin, Douglas Aibel, Peter Brown, Helen Cooper, Bert Fink, Cherry Jones, Emily Mann, Bradford Mays, Oliver Parker, Amos Poe, Keith Reddin, Tim Robbins, Harvey Schmidt, Patrick Wilde, Ruth Williamson and Tony Walton. And, as always, the Playbill On- Line gang for looking the columns over before they get to you.

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