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Michael Douglas' desire for change propelled 'Wonder Boys' To Screen

Sunday, February 13, 2000

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

LOS ANGELES -- Most novels, like movies, start with an image.

Michael Chabon used the picture of a 2-foot-high pile of typed pages, an unfinished book that only got longer, as a metaphor for a life in limbo.

The image became "Wonder Boys," a modestly successful 1995 novel set in Pittsburgh that stays in print as a paperback. Like most novelists, he sold the film rights, in this case to a major Hollywood producer named Scott Rudin, and Chabon says the deal was in "the low six figures." Like most novelists, he expected the deal to end right there.

Despite a recent spate of novels into film ("A Simple Plan," "The Ice Storm," "The Sweet Hereafter," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "The Cider House Rules," "A Map of the World" and "Felicia's Journey"), very few books make it past the rights stage.

Nearly all are dropped, but a few hang around when the producer decides to renew the deal ("an option," it's called in Hollywood). Rudin took an option twice on "Wonder Boys."

Chabon says Rudin was influenced by an assistant, Ray Bongiovanni, who enjoyed the book. "He pushed him to buy it," the writer said.

When Bongiovanni died several years ago, Rudin, in his memory, agreed to produce "Wonder Boys," setting in motion the arcane, mysterious process that makes the movies.

"I was always skeptical that this book would ever become a movie," Chabon said. "If it ever happened, it would a be like a small film, a cult thing, never a big Hollywood deal."

This is how "Wonder Boys," which opens in Pittsburgh Feb. 25, became a big Hollywood deal.

With films like "The Truman Show," "The First Wives Club" and "The Addams Family" to his credit, Rudin has the clout to interest a production company and investors.

More on the 'Wonder Boys'

Book-to-film fame and fortune haven't spoiled family man Michael Chabon

'Wonder Boys' premiere to be reel benefit for Hill


He also can attract a talented screenwriter like Steve Kloves to the project. Kloves wrote and directed "The Fabulous Baker Boys," a film with an offbeat location and character-driven story, not unlike "Wonder Boys."

But, in these days of special effects and action movies, those names weren't enough to draw the multimillion-dollar commitments that film-making requires. It stalled. Kloves, who also signed on to direct, left the project.

Enter Michael Douglas.

Son of a movie star and an Oscar-winning actor in his own right, the 55-year-old Douglas was looking for a change. He had just starred in two psychological thrillers, "The Game" and "A Perfect Murder."

In that movie, a reworked version of Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," Douglas had played a particularly loathsome and slick character who arranges his wife's killing.

"I was in the market for a romantic comedy role," Douglas explained. "Something a little offbeat. 'Wonder Boys' was as close as I could get."

The role was Grady Tripp, a once-hot writer who had gone to seed in his 40s. Rumpled, overweight and with a daily pot habit, Tripp taught writing at a college in Pittsburgh.

He hadn't published in eight years, but he kept writing, writing and writing. His next great novel, "Wonder Boys," was more than 2,000 pages strong with no end in sight.

After a career playing rich, slim, tanned heroes, Douglas would at last be taking on a character who was none of the above -- and close to his own age, to boot.

"When I read the script, I wanted to play this guy," he said. "Grady is such a wonderful, rich character. Maybe there was a little of my life in him, from my younger days. Certain reverberations from the '60s, you know, the laid-back attitude, the dope."

With Douglas aboard, "Wonder Boys" was a can't-miss proposition, but it still lacked a director. The project was offered to Curtis Hanson, fresh from the success of "L.A. Confidential." That 1997 picture, a complex tale of corruption, had pulled in an impressive collection of awards, including two Oscars.

Rudin, Douglas, Hanson and a script by Kloves. Still, the studios balked.

Douglas’ romance overshadows movie buzz

LOS ANGELES -- Michael Douglas’ transformation from the overweight, aging professor he plays in “Wonder Boys” to his usual slim, tanned California movie star seemed complete as he promoted the film last month, but he wasn’t happy.

“I’ve still got about 8 pounds to go,” he claimed, flashing a set of blindingly white teeth, the look he inherited from his dad, Kirk.

Douglas, 55, has an added incentive to restore his good looks -- his upcoming marriage to actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, 30.

“Believe me, we don’t even think about the age difference any more,” he claimed. Talk of the romance all but overshadowed the buzz on “Wonder Boys” during his press interviews because his appearance came just days after the couple announced that Jones was expecting.

“This older man, younger woman thing’s been going on for centuries,” he said. “There’s a certain biological element to it.”

(There’s a certain irony to it as well. In the film, Douglas’ character fathers a child, but to a woman his age.)

Douglas and Jones became a couple after he watched her in “The Mask of Zorro” and arranged a meeting. “We’ve been together ever since. Besides, there’s something really great going on, because the last thing I thought I would do is get involved with an actress.”

With his new film and relationship, Douglas had to admit that he’s “riding a crest right now. And I deserve it,” he added, flashing those teeth again.

“The fact is, nobody really writes about all the crap I’ve gone through.”

-- Bob Hoover


"We had to use all the leverage we could to get this movie made," said Hanson, a gaunt, shaggy-haired man whose interests include historical preservation and American popular music. Ironically, it was Douglas' presence that discouraged them. His usual $20 million price tag was too much.

"I give all the credit to Michael Douglas for getting this movie made," Hanson said. "Any big star can make any movie he wants. He just can't expect to get $20 million for it."

Sold on the part of Grady Tripp, Douglas said he agreed to work for much less than his usual price. Sources put his paycheck at around $5 million. "We took salary cuts. We made deals to get this movie made," he said. "Let's face it, there just isn't a lot of good material around these days. There's a shortage of good, decent roles for actors. You grab it when you have the chance."

Hanson declined to go into the details behind the "Wonder Boys" production deals, except to tell a story.

"After 'L.A. Confidential' came out, I had a chance to meet Billy Wilder (the legendary director of such films as "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard"). "He said to me, 'Now, you want to make a comedy, right? Well, listen, you're going to have to fight to make a comedy after that last picture.' And, he was right."

Paramount finally backed the project, and Hanson began planning the production. "I love locale," he said. "That was one of the pleasures of making 'L.A. Confidential.' I decided to go to Pittsburgh to check it out because I had never been there before."

Hanson then broke into a huge grin and started to sound like somebody from the mayor's office. "It's such an unusually attractive city, a unique place, so urban. If they had any renewal projects, they missed a whole lot of the place."

And, the chief attraction was ...?

"God, there are so many bridges. Pittsburgh has more bridges than any place in the world," he enthused

Pittsburgh's bridges then became what Hanson calls "the thematic symbol of 'Wonder Boys.' All of the characters are looking for connections, a bridge to something.

"At the start of the movie, one of them asks, 'How do you get from here to there?' A bridge."

To illustrate his point, a pivotal scene near the end of the movie is filmed with the Monaca Bridge in Rochester, Beaver County, looming over the Ohio River.

Douglas became another Pittsburgh convert. "It's a great town, Pittsburgh. People have got to give it more support. Everybody thinks it's still a mess from 20 years ago."

The actor found the food here to his liking as well. Douglas gained 25 pounds to fill out the role of Tripp, described in the book as a "dented, gas-guzzling, old Galaxie 500 of a man."

"I was eating those things -- hoagies? -- and lots of fries and cheese and nachos," he said. "Man, I still don't have all the pounds off."

Filming began in Pittsburgh early last year and took nearly five months. "It was an extremely difficult shoot," said Hanson, "to make a film in continuity for five months in the Pittsburgh winter."

(Most movie scenes are not made in sequence and are edited in proper order afterward. "Wonder Boys" was filmed largely in sequence with the script.)

"Curtis helped us create our own little liberal arts college in Pittsburgh," Douglas said. "It was a great environment to work in."

Echoing him was the 24-year-old Tobey Maguire, who plays Douglas' student, James Leer. "It was the best time I ever had on a job. We all had a really good time and got along great in Pittsburgh. I had a real blast working with Michael Douglas."

Unlike his "Wonder Boys" character, who brims with imagination, the slightly built, pale actor seems to let the screenwriters provide him with complex sentences -- and thoughts.

"The script was so good that it wasn't that hard of a job," said Maguire, who added that he did read the book.

He said his only surprise was the "matter-of-fact gay romance" Leer has with Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), Tripp's New York editor.

"Yeah, just a little surprising, I guess," he said after staring at his hands for nearly half a minute.

Maguire has recently made a career playing characters from novels, appearing in both "The Ice Storm," by Rick Moody, and "The Cider House Rules" by John Irving. He's looking for something different now. "I want to do some intelligent action thrillers, you know, good genre stuff."

Missing from the round of cast interviews in Los Angeles was Downey, who's been in a California penitentiary since August for violating parole for using drugs.

The actor's career had already suffered after a series of publicized arrests, and Hanson said Downey had actively sought the "Wonder Boys" role. "He came to Pittsburgh and asked for the part," the director said.

When the filming ended, Downey "had no home to go to in Los Angeles," said Hanson, who lent him his L.A. apartment. Hanson also visited Downey in prison at Christmas.

Also absent because of another commitment was Frances McDormand, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area and plays Sara Gaskell, Tripp's middle-aged lover.

"We worked pretty hard on selling this 'old folks in love' thing," said Douglas. "I hope people believe it."

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