CAREER CORNER : Read This and Tell Us You Still Want to Write Movies

It's no surprise to hear that a movie is looking iffy before its release. Or that earlier drafts of a script were superior to the final, fussed-over shooting version. And it's fairly routine when a screenwriter claims that the essence of his work has not survived the transition to the screen. But throw those things together and you have TriStar's upcoming Mike Myers comedy "So I Married an Axe Murderer."

Reports about the film have been circulating in recent weeks: Test screenings have drawn mixed results, reshoots are in the works, and TriStar has now bumped the release from early March to early August.

TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy insists that "Axe Murderer" has "tested well, especially with younger audiences." TriStar marketing vice president Buffy Shutt, pointing to the success of recent late-summer hits such as "Unforgiven," argues that August "is no longer a dumping ground" for summer films. Myers' agent, United Talent Agency's Marty Bauer, claims that reshoots "are more the rule than the exception" these days and no indication that a film is in trouble.

Set in San Francisco, "Axe Murderer" is about a romantically frustrated book-store owner (Myers) who meets and marries the woman of his dreams (Nancy Travis) only to discover she may have a guilty secret that would be of interest to homicide detectives.

Although screenwriter Robbie Fox was awarded sole story and screenplay credit last month by the Writers Guild, he says the style and tone of the "Murderer" shooting script is very different from what he wrote. Prior to filming last summer, Myers and his writing partner Neil Mullarkey re-tailored Fox's script--which had a main character in his late 30s and full of Jewish Angst --to suit Myers' persona. The shooting script, Fox claims, was "more on the level of 'Wayne's World.' "

Fox sums up the comic tone of his earlier versions with a line spoken by his neurotic main character: "Some guys' wives are unattractive. Some guys' wives are unfaithful. My wife has a thing about murdering husbands--you have to take the good with the bad."

The differences between the two approaches eventually led to the squabble over whether or not Fox should share screenplay credit with his rewriters. TriStar supported Myers' and Mullarkey's claim with the guild. And once Fox won the initial judgment, he found himself the object of some friendly persuasion.

Fox says "Murderer" co-producer Rob Fried phoned to inform him that Myers "might call to talk about a (arrangement)." Then Bauer called to suggest that Fox might want to offer shared credit to Myers and Mullarkey "because they (Myers and Mullarkey) felt it would be the fair thing to do," says Fox. "And it would put me in Mike's good graces. I said no and Bauer offered a deal in which I wouldn't have to split the screenplay money with Myers. I said no again.

"An hour later Myers called and asked me if I didn't think the guild decision was an injustice. I told him it was the first thing that's happened on this project in some time that hasn't been an injustice."

Bauer admits trying to persuade Fox to change his mind but denies having offered increased fees as a lure. "I didn't discuss financial terms," he says. "Dan Quayle might have but I didn't." Myers declined to comment for this story.

The curious side to all this is that Fox probably didn't have the authority to share credit even if he wanted to, given guild rules. The effort to persuade Fox to share credit "was probably futile," says an inside source. "I think they were just desperate to keep Myers happy and didn't know what else to do."

Fox says a final offer was dangled hypothetically by "Murderer" co-producer Rob Fried in a discussion with Fox's agent, Michael Wimer of CAA. Fried suggested a deal in which Fox would be hired to write a Mike Myers movie at TriStar. But when Wimer asked if he was making the offer with TriStar's authorization, Fried said he'd have to confirm and call back. He never did. Fried also offered no comment.

Efforts by big stars and directors to pressure lesser-known writers to share screenplay credit are not unheard of in Hollywood. Myers, who has won an Emmy Award for his writing on "Saturday Night Live," "wants very much to be thought of as a writer as well as a performer," says a former colleague.

Fox says his refusal to take the money and run was forged over a six-year period during which time he completed a total of 15 "Axe Murderer" drafts. "Things are going great for me," he remarks. "If it keeps up, it's going to be because of my writing, not sweetheart deals."

Fox's "Murderer" was initially pitched in 1986 under the title of "Fatal Attraction" (before the hit film, needless to say), written in early 1988 as "Love and Fear" and then retitled "The Man Who Cried Wife." Under option at Columbia Pictures, which hired Fox to write several drafts, the script was renamed "So I Married an Axe Murderer" by then-Columbia chief Dawn Steel, who wanted a tone of macabre hip.

The script lured two directors during its Columbia period. For a short period, Rod Daniel was attached to direct with Garry Shandling starring. Woody Allen was interested after Daniel and Shandling left. Director Howard Zeiff ("My Girl") joined the project in late summer and stayed until early '90, during which time he co-wrote five drafts with Fox. None made it off the launch pad. "Columbia kept changing its mind about the wife," Fox recalls. "Maybe she should be guilty, maybe she should be innocent, maybe we should know why she did it, and on and on."

Fox wrote so many drafts during "Murderer's" stay at Columbia that production executives "started to ask me, isn't it time you moved on? Aren't you burnt out?" Fox says. "And then while they were looking for another writer, I'd do another draft on spec and they'd read it and say, 'Yeah, pretty good' and keep me on the payroll."

Fox and the project left Columbia in April '90 when Frank Price, having replaced Steel as chairman, insisted on the wife not being a murderer. The argument, Fox recalls, "was that 'Pretty Woman' wouldn't have made any money if Julia Roberts had gone back to the street. Audiences want upbeat, they kept saying." Within a week of Price's ultimatum, "Axe Murderer" was off to TriStar with Rob Fried attached as producer. Andrew Bergman came and went as the director "in a matter of hours," says Fox. Chevy Chase climbed aboard to star in late 1990.

From time to time, the tenacious Fox fell out of favor as the main writer. Barbara Benedek, hired by Fried in mid-'91 to write a draft, created a new character, Rose, the wife's sister. Carrie Fisher did some uncredited work on the script. Other writers included Sally Robinson and Conan O'Brien ("The Simpsons").

Chase stayed with "Murderer" through '91, while the project "just kind of sat there," Fox says. By the time Bob Balaban came on to direct in early '92, Fox had written one final draft and "everyone was saying, we've got it, we're ready to shoot." But Chase's stock had been dropping due to the failure of "Memoirs of an Invisible Man." Suddenly he was out and Myers, flying high after "Wayne's World," was in. Tommy Schlamme was hired to direct and the project was given the go-ahead.

Fox says, "Everybody said to Mike, you've got the touch, do what you want with the script. He went into a hotel with Mullarkey for eight days and rewrote it into a Mike Myers movie." The comedy, finally in gear and with a budget of under $20 million, started shooting last July and wrapped in October.

A few weeks later, TriStar submitted its request for "Murderer" screenplay credits to the Writers Guild--story by Fox, screenplay by Fox, Myers and Mullarkey. Fox read the shooting script and concluded that "every idea and plot point had originated with my versions." The Writers Guild arbitration board agreed.

Myers' manager, Marc Gurvitz of Brillstein/Grey, takes strong exception. "They made a gross, gross mistake in handing sole credit to Fox," he declares. "This decision was absolutely insane. If you were to read the two scripts, you would be stunned at how different they are. Fox's script is a thriller with a little bit of comedy. Mike and Neil's script is a comedy with a little bit of thriller." The guild's process was unsuccessfully appealed Monday.

Despite the uncertain fate awaiting "Axe Murderer," Fox hopes that it "becomes a huge success," he says. "Despite everything, it's still the first film I've written that's been produced. I hope everyone that saw 'Wayne's World' goes to see it twice."

TriStar sources understandably refuse to say whether Nancy Travis' character will be a murderer in the completed film. Two versions--guilty and not guilty--are rumored to have been filmed.

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