Travolta as Edna? Co-Director Credit for Mitchell and O'Brien? Hairspray Director Weighs In on Movie Version

News   Travolta as Edna? Co-Director Credit for Mitchell and O'Brien? Hairspray Director Weighs In on Movie Version Tony Award-winning director Jack O'Brien intends to appeal to the Directors Guild of America to allow a rare co-directing credit for O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell on the new feature film version of the Broadway smash, Hairspray.

Jack O'Brien
Jack O'Brien Photo by Sandy Huffaker

The motion picture is expected to begin production in the fall. Since the announcement of "Hairspray," the movie, O'Brien (who directed the stage show) and Mitchell (who choreographed it) were mentioned as the intended co-directors. However, the directors' union has a longstanding policy of one director per film.

A DGA spokesman told Playbill.com the DGA does not comment on specific co-directing situations. The Guild's one-director policy is there for a number of reasons, including promoting a production schedule that isn't put into chaos by too many cooks in the kitchen. Exceptions are made, but they are rare.

O'Brien told Playbill.com March 1 that he and Mitchell aren't officially the co-directors of "Hairspray" yet.

"I am just determined to make this happen because I believe in him so much," O'Brien said of Mitchell, who also choreographed the O'Brien-directed The Full Monty and the current Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway. "Over half the show is music. He's not just doing a choreographer's assignment on this film. Half of this — at least half of this — is him, so I can't bear the idea that he can't have co-directing credit, and I'm going to appeal to the DGA and see if I can't make a case for it."

There have been exceptions to the 1978 single-director rule (launched and formalized in 1978 contract negotiations). According to DGA, there has been a substantial increase in co-directing waiver requests. There were 15 requests (10 granted) between 1979 and 1989; 19 requests (11 granted) from 1990 to 1999. Since 2000, there have been 22 requests for co-directing waivers of which 12 waivers were granted. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise were co-directors on the film "West Side Story," but the schedule and set were troubled, Wise has said. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly were co-directing partners on musical films such as "Singin' in the Rain" and "It's Always Fair Weather."

"In the old days, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly collaborated, and now they act as if it's sort of anathema," O'Brien said. "I think to myself, look to your own history, guys, it takes two people to do this. I don't think 'Hairspray' is a normal film. I think if this were a normal film, I would say absolutely I understand it. But it is so obviously a two-part invention, and they say, 'Well, why didn’t you do it that way on Broadway?' I said, 'We came in at the 11th hour. [Rob Marshall] was supposed to do this, and then he got the movie of 'Chicago' and he had to drop the project. We just picked it up and went to work. I think if we had known going in what we know coming out, I think we would have insisted that we co-direct it [on Broadway]. It'll be interesting to see how this all sorts itself out."

Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the new film's producers, of Storyline Entertainment, told Playbill.com, "We are optimistic and hopeful that this matter will get resolved fairly and happily for both Jack and Jerry. As with all directorial matters on a motion picture, the final decision always rests in the hands of the DGA."

Variety reported that Leslie Dixon is now working on the screenplay for the "Hairspray" movie musical. Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell, who won the Tony Award for Best Book for Hairspray, took a crack at it first.

"We, all of us, including [composer] Marc [Shaiman] and [lyricist] Scott [Wittman] got together and converted what best we could — a screenplay from what we had done on stage," O'Brien said. "The studio feels very strongly that it needs to be shaped primarily as a film, not as a transcription of a [stage] musical to the screen. That's absolutely true. It's going to film differently than it lives on stage. They very much wanted to bring some more experienced perspective to the table and that's what we're doing right now. It's not going to change fundamentally — the story isn't going to change fundamentally — but I think the structure may."

Reports have circulated that John Travolta is being courted to play zaftig Baltimore housewife Edna Turnblad in the new musical picture, the stage version of which was inspired by John Waters' 1988 non-musical movie.

Harvey Fierstein won a Tony Award as Edna, whose chubby daughter, Tracy, wants to dance on a Baltimore teen TV show in the 1960s.

O'Brien told Playbill.com: "My loyalty Harvey is intense. But I do understand that this is an international film business and I understand the studio may have other agendas. Look, John Travolta in that dress is pretty funny, and God knows he can dance! In all gracious deference to Harvey and Bruce [Vilanch] and everybody else who's played the part, we've never had a dancer in the part – a real dancer. It would be fun to see him cut loose in that."

Will it happen?

"I don't know, I'm not a speculator," O'Brien said with a laugh. "It's too rich a mix for me. I'm a benign observer of how this all sorts itself out."

O'Brien said that "all the girls" who played Tracy Turnblad on stage will be screen-tested, but that the casting exploration might include seeking somebody new. It's "absolutely" a star-making role, O'Brien said.

The older roles and principal parts "will probably fall into a very starry category," O'Brien said. Major film, TV or pop stars can be expected as Motormouth Maybelle, Corny Collins, Seaweed, Velma, Amber and Wilbur Turblad.

O'Brien, artistic director of The Old Globe in San Diego, is taking a break from directing there in 2005-06 to concentrate on working with Mitchell on "Hairspray," and later Lincoln Center Theater's ambitious 2006 staging of Tom Stoppard's three-part The Coast of Utopia.

"I can't believe what's going on in my life," he enthused. "To be offered this film at this point is like living in some fable, I'm very excited about it. I've wanted to do a film for a long time, but the intensity of my work at the Globe made it absolutely impossible for me to take that much time away, but the Globe has now made it possible for me to have a longer leash."

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According to an article on the one-director rule in the May 2004 issue of DGA Magazine, 1978 contract negotiations led to an agreement by studios that "there would be only one director assigned to direct a motion picture at any given time."

"Our concern was that the use of more than one director (and if two why not three or four, etc.?) would lead to the producer becoming an über director and the director(s) becoming messengers," director Elliot Silverstein, chair of the 1978 Creative Rights Negotiating Committee, told DGA Magazine. "We did not want the Guild's members to be involved in a 'piece goods' profession, blurring individual vision, authority and credit."

One of the goals of the rule at the time was to quash the possibility of aggressive stars and producers getting co-director credit if they demanded it.

There is also a feeling within the DGA membership that "a single director has proven to be the most efficient way to guide a film during production," according to DGA magazine.

"A single director is an organizational imperative," DGA Secretary-Treasurer and Western Directors Council member Gil Cates told DGA magazine. "A film is a complex form involving the integration of many elements. It's a composite from many people — the writer, the actor, the director of photography. I'm sure that what is going on in the world at the time is also thrown in as part of the composite. So I'm not saying the vision has to be generated by one person, but, the best way to have that integration be successful is to have it articulated by a single person."