STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Film Director George C. Wolfe, Zadan & Meron, Plus Fall Highlights

This month we speak to George C. Wolfe ("Nights in Rodanthe") and TV producers Craig Zadan & Neil Meron ("Living Proof"), and preview fall projects/casting.

Richard Gere with George C. Wolfe on the set of
Richard Gere with George C. Wolfe on the set of "Nights in Rodanthe"

*

An intelligent, adult romantic tale that seems rare when so many movies are made for the "Harold & Kumar" audience, "Nights in Rodanthe," which premieres Sept. 26, stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane.

Nicholas Sparks wrote the best seller, on which the film is based; the screenplay is by Ann Peacock and John Romano. Other Sparks novels made into movies include "Message in a Bottle" (1999), "A Walk to Remember" (2002), and "The Notebook" (2004). The last, starring James Garner and Gena Rowlands, had an especially popular appeal, and this picture should interest the same filmgoers.

"Nights" marks the first theatrical release for director George C. Wolfe, the former artistic director of The Public Theater. "I'm normally drawn to edgier material," he notes. "That's one of the reasons I was intrigued and excited about doing this movie. It isn't edgy; it's adult, emotional, complicated — but dealing with a lot of fragile things, and precarious relationships.

"It was interesting working on a movie where a lot of things that come easy for me — intensity, aggression, raw humor — didn't hang out at all. As a result, it had to do with storytelling through fragile emotion." When I spoke to Wolfe several years ago about "Lackawanna Blues," the acclaimed 2005 HBO movie, for which he won a Directors Guild Award, he said that "the most important thing" in directing a movie "was getting good shoes." Does he still believe that?

"Shoes are so important," he insists, laughing. "You're on your feet all the time. Then you're editing in a dark cage. You have to go out and breathe air. That's another thing I've learned. So, it's good shoes — and sunlight."

Gere and Lane, who previously teamed in "The Cotton Club" and "Unfaithful," play Paul and Adrienne, both of whom are recovering from failed marriages (his because he made his medical career a priority; hers because of a cheating spouse). They spend a weekend as the only occupants at an inn in Rodanthe (RO-dan-tee), as a hurricane approaches.

Diane Lane and Viola Davis
photo by © Warner Bros. Pictures

Also in the cast: Scott Glenn (as Torrelson, a widower who blames Gere for his wife's death on the operating table), Viola Davis (Jean, who has asked best friend Adrienne to run her inn for a weekend), Christopher Meloni (Jack, Adrienne's estranged husband), and Mae Whitman (their teenage daughter). Was the screenplay already written when Wolfe signed on? "Yes. Like the book, Adrienne told the story in flashback. I removed that structure, and had the story go moment to moment. I also wanted to emphasize the hurricane."

Although one realizes that special effects can create anything, the hurricane is still fierce and impressive. "My image," explains Wolfe, "was that this is a horror movie, and the hurricane is the monster trying to break into the house. It took two days to film. Besides the wind and rain machines, there were people slamming the shutters. One guy pounded so hard on a shutter that he actually broke it. I kept it in. It was fun doing a mini-horror sequence inside a love story."

Did working with Elaine Stritch (in At Liberty) make it easier to direct the hurricane? Wolfe roars laughing. "I loved working with Elaine. I love working with strong, opinionated actors. That's what makes the long hours not long. I got to work with a lot of great actors in this movie."

Shooting occurred in May and June 2007. Exteriors (with some striking scenery) were filmed in Rodanthe, on North Carolina's Outer Banks (a string of islands running parallel to the coast). Interiors were shot in a two-family house on Topsail Island, which is near Wilmington, DE.

Wolfe always does "a ton of research. I want information inside my body. I read about the Outer Banks' history, which is fascinating. I listened to the music of the area. I looked at Winslow Homer's great paintings of hurricanes. One of his paintings is in the movie."

Some scenes, not in the book, were added: one shows horses running on the beach, and another has Adrienne and Paul trashing Jean's pantry, tossing her out-dated goods into a barrel. "That was to show a different side of Adrienne," Wolfe tells me, "to show who she was before marriage and motherhood."

As a film director, which does he consider more important: the verbal or the visual? There's a momentary pause in his rapid-fire speech pattern before he answers. "I like the verbal, because I love language. But the visual produces, more often than not, a visceral impact for the audience. It's generally the way to affect an audience, and get them to go on the emotional journey you want them to go on."

Wolfe's life journey began as an only child, son of a government clerk and an educator. Born in Frankfort, KY, the initial C is for Costello, his father's first name. "When I was 12, my mother [Anna] came to NYU to do some advance-degree work, and brought me along. That's when I saw Hamlet, with Cleavon Little, directed by Joe Papp; Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly!; and a production of West Side Story at Lincoln Center."

He attended Kentucky State University (his parents' alma mater) for a year, then transferred to California's Pomona College, where he earned a BA in theatre. Wolfe then taught in Los Angeles and New York. At NYU, he received a MFA in musical theatre and dramatic writing.

His 1985 Off-Broadway debut came as librettist and lyricist of Paradise, at Playwrights Horizons. The next year, he wrote The Colored Museum, which played at the Public. He's amassed numerous directing and producing credits, and served as The Public's artistic director 1993-2005. Wolfe won two Tonys: for directing Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Noise/Funk.

Which show has given him the most satisfaction? "So many different things. Part Two of Angels in America was fulfilling, because it was so exhausting. Noise/Funk was the most joyful collaboration. Wild Party was exciting, because it was against tremendous obstacles. I loved everyone in Jelly's Last Jam. That was a magical time! Each show gives you a piece of yourself that was missing prior to it, and a piece of you dies, too. It's a very complicated process."

In the wings: a return to the Public, directing John Guare's A Free Man of Color, "about the Louisiana Purchase. It's set in 1802, and among the characters are Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, and Josephine. Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright head a cast of 27. I think it's a brilliant work — a Restoration comedy that spirals and becomes about America. It's funny, sexy, provocative, and outrageous."

Prior to "Lackawanna Blues," Wolfe directed films of "The Colored Museum" and "Fires in the Mirror" (with Anna Deavere Smith); however, he considers them "hybrids, filmed stage versions," rather than movies.

Before filming "Nights in Rodanthe," did Wolfe have a vision of the characters? "Yes, but it changes when you start working with actors. If you're confident about your vision, then things become richer. Richard and Diane got involved in the shaping of the script. It's like making gumbo. You know the ingredients, but then you add something that electrifies it, in a certain way, and the recipe gets altered. That's what's brilliant about collaboration!"

*

Harry Connick, Jr. in "Living Proof"
photo by Skip Bolen, Lifetime Networks

"Living Proof," a Lifetime TV film (Oct. 18, 9 PM ET), details the lengthy struggle of UCLA Dr. Dennis Slamon (played by Harry Connick Jr.) to develop Herceptin 2, a breast-cancer drug that has saved thousands of lives. Storyline Entertainment partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are two of its co-producers. What was the development of their participation? "Vivienne Radkoff, who wrote it and is an executive producer, spent seven years trying to get it going," states Meron. "She walked through our doors, told us the story — a most original take on a catastrophic illness. It was inspiring and hopeful, and would not leave viewers depressed."

Zadan picks up: "We thought, there have been several breast-cancer movies on Lifetime; we wouldn't want to do something similar. But we were won over by Dr. Slamon's battle with the drug company and the FDA, the process of what he had to go through, in order to develop a cure. It had the tone of 'And the Band Played On' and 'Silkwood' — Man vs. the Establishment. To battle the odds — loss of interest, no funding, discouragement — requires someone who doesn't give up. That was a movie we wanted to make."

Continues Meron, "We contacted Renee Zellweger [with whom they worked in the Oscar-winning "Chicago"]. She's an advocate for breast-cancer awareness. Turns out that Dr. Slamon had saved the life of her friend and publicist, Nancy Ryder. Renee partnered with us. She was filming a movie ["Chilling in Miami"] with Harry Connick Jr. — who was the person both of us wanted to play Dr. Slamon. Renee talked up the script, and got Harry interested in it."

Says Zadan, "We took out our e-mail address book and contacted friends, in order to gather an all-star cast [which includes Bernadette Peters, Tammy Blanchard, Swoosie Kurtz, Angie Harmon, John Benjamin Hickey, Amy Madigan, Amanda Bynes, and Regina King].

Jennifer Coolidge with Bernadette Peters
photo by Skip Bolen, Lifetime Networks

"While the other patients are composites, Bernadette plays the only real woman depicted in the story. She's the longest surviving member of the Phase One trial [of the drug]. We're flying her and her husband to New York; she and Bernadette will get to meet at the premiere." "It was like working with family," concludes Meron. "None of the actors needed to do it — they wanted to do it, to tell the story the right way, with passion and commitment, and to honor Dr. Slamon."

Various and Sundry

The new Neil LaBute-directed movie, "Lakeview Terrace", stars Samuel L. Jackson as a racist L.A. cop who harasses an interracial couple ( Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington) who move in next door.

Next month, Wilson moves from screens to stage, opening in the Broadway revival of All My Sons, by Arthur Miller. Miller's 1947 play, which focuses on how a manufacturer's wartime greed affects his family, was the playwright's second time on Broadway, and his first success — following an effort that ran four performances, and preceding Death of a Salesman. Wilson co-stars with two-time Tony winner John Lithgow, two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, and — in a Broadway debut — Katie Holmes. Holmes fans can also see her on the new TV season's second episode of "Eli Stone.

*

When "24" returns, joining the cast are two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones (as the U.S. President) and Oscar winner Jon Voight; both will be seen first in a TV-movie, "24: Exiled".

*

Lily Tomlin and Gale Harold have been added to the cast of "Desperate Housewives".

*

The Brooke Shields sitcom, "Lipstick Jungle", will have Mary Tyler Moore guest starring as her mom.

*

Angela Bassett preps for "ER" duty while Jimmy Smits joins the cast of "Dexter."

*

"Ugly Betty", which is set in Manhattan, has moved production to the Big Apple, and Lindsay Lohan returns for five episodes.

*

On Sept. 23's tenth-season starter of "Law & Order: SVU", guest stars are Luke Perry, Julie Bowen, and Sara Gilbert.

*

Dennis Hopper stars in the series "Crash", based on 2004's Oscar-winning Best Picture.

*

Debra Messing teams with Judy Davis in "The Starter Wife", a new series based on the earlier hit miniseries.

*

Two of last season's Tony nominees, Laurie Metcalf (November) and Laurence Fishburne (Thurgood) are taking TV turns in the coming season. Metcalf (a "Roseanne" veteran) stars in "Easy Money", while Fisburne succeeds William Petersen as the lead in "CSI" (starting with the ninth episode).

*

Tony Award winner Audra McDonald returns Oct. 1 in the series "Private Practice".

*

Jeffrey Donovan (USA's "Burn This", and the most-recent Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge) will appear in Don't Dress for Dinner, by Marc Camoletti ( Boeing-Boeing), at Chicago's Royal George Theatre.

*

This fall, Frank Langella stars on Broadway as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, and onscreen, as the 37th President in "Frost/Nixon", reprising the role that won him a third Tony Award. (The trailer can be found online.)

*

Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard make Broadway debuts (Oct. 2, at the Walter Kerr) in the acclaimed British (Royal Court) production of Chekhov's The Seagull, adapted by Christopher Hampton.

*

Britain's Nick Whitby has adapted the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch-directed comedy "To Be or Not to Be" for Broadway (opening Oct. 14, at the Friedman, formerly the Biltmore). The tale of a theatrical troupe performing in Poland as Nazis invade stars Jan Maxwell and David Rasche in roles originated by Carole Lombard and Jack Benny (and played in the 1983 remake by Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks).

*

White Christmas comes to Broadway for the holiday season (for the first time, though it's played regionally). It's based on the 1954 Irving Berlin movie musical (the year's top-grossing film — and a perennial TV holiday fixture), which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Kaye replaced Donald O'Connor, who had replaced Fred Astaire. Dancer Vera-Ellen, who plays the younger sister of Rosemary Clooney, was actually seven years her senior. Vera-Ellen's singing voice was always dubbed; Trudy Stevens did her "White Christmas" vocals — except for the duet "Sisters," in which Clooney sang both parts. Because Clooney was under contract to a different record label, her songs on the soundtrack album were sung by Peggy Lee. The title song was introduced (and won the Oscar) in 1942's "Holiday Inn" (starring Crosby and Astaire).

*

Broadway's Jana Robbins makes her feature film debut in the latest movie version of "The Women", based on the 1936 hit play, by Clare Boothe Luce. It's been revived twice on Broadway: in 1973, starring Kim Hunter, and in 2001, with Cynthia Nixon. Meg Ryan stars in the latest movie version. It's been filmed twice before: in 1939, Norma Shearer led a star-studded female cast (including Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard engaging in a famous screen fight); in 1956, the title was changed to "The Opposite Sex", men and songs were added, and June Allyson starred. San Diego's Old Globe has a production running, with Kate Baldwin as wronged wife Mary.

*

One of AMC's "Mad Men" stars, Elisabeth Moss, (Peggy Olson) makes her Broadway bow next month in a revival of the David Mamet drama Speed-the-Plow, opposite Jeremy Piven ( "Entourage") and three-time Tony nominee Raul Esparza. I'll interview Moss in my next column. Please stay tuned.

*

Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.