'In the Line of Fire': Whose Movie Is It, Anyway? : Movies: Columbia Pictures bankrolled the Castle Rock production, but there is disagreement over just how much creative credit the studio can claim.

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

Grabbing credit for success and running from failure is an all-too common practice in Hollywood.

And many industry insiders are irked that Columbia Pictures--embarrassed by the expensive misfiring of "Last Action Hero"--is laying claim to what looks like the makings of a big hit with "In the Line of Fire," the Clint Eastwood political thriller that opened Friday to much fanfare.

Giving credit where credit is due is never easy since bringing any motion picture to the big screen is never less than a collaborative effort. But taking credit where credit may not be due is another story.

Case in point is "In the Line of Fire."

Even prior to the film's release, some of Columbia executives were overheard around town boasting about "their" movie.

Monday, in a press release announcing its more than $15-million opening weekend at the box office, Columbia Chairman Mark Canton talked about its "enviable partnership with Castle Rock and Clint Eastwood, who we are proud to have associated with the new Columbia Pictures, throughout the filmmaking process." Canton goes on to say that the partnership began "with the acquisition of the script and continued through casting, production and post-production, to marketing and distribution of the film."

In fact, Castle Rock Entertainment--an independent production company headed by director-producer Rob Reiner and his four partners--acquired "In the Line of Fire" in script form, developed the movie and packaged its two major stars, Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich, and director Wolfgang Petersen.

Castle Rock partner Martin Shafer said that his company "made the deal with Clint Eastwood, made the deal with Wolfgang Petersen and made the deal with John Malkovich . . . Columbia did not initiate or package (the movie). From a creative standpoint, it was a Castle Rock picture."

Columbia, whose parent Sony Corps. owns about 44% of Castle Rock, can be justly credited with stepping up to the plate 10 weeks before production to finance the just under $40-million project, as well as with handling the marketing and distribution.

While Castle Rock has a distribution deal with Columbia to release its pictures in the United States and Canada, the company normally finances its own movies under an agreement with New Line Cinema and Credit Lyonnais Bank.

When New Line passed on bankrolling "In the Line of Fire" because of its cost, Castle Rock turned to Columbia. Similarly, last year Columbia financed Castle Rock's movie "A Few Good Men."

Beyond Columbia's financial involvement, there is disagreement over just how much creative credit the studio can aptly claim.

Jeff Maguire, the movie's screenwriter, contends that while Columbia was "terrific and supportive, I think even they would agree that giving them credit for the picture would be like giving mortgage bankers credit for a Frank Lloyd Wright house."

Maguire acknowledged, however, that Columbia executives "did come up with some very good suggestions. . . . There were probably a dozen notes they gave us and we adopted some and decided against others."

"In the Line of Fire" producer Jeff Apple concurred that "Columbia's involvement was really a function of a business situation between them and Castle Rock . . . but their creative involvement was not a great deal." Apple noted, however, that during production, both Columbia and Castle Rock executives "were very respectful of the filmmakers" and remained relatively hands-off.

Michael Nathanson, Columbia's president of worldwide production, takes issue with any downplaying of the studio's creative involvement in the making of the picture. "I think the whole process from day one was entirely a collaborative one and as the picture took on a life of its own, we were immensely supportive of the process. There was not one step of the way we were not involved in a creative decision or production decision."

Both Shafer and Maguire agree that Columbia's biggest creative contribution was suggesting some changes to the ending of the movie, which is about a Secret Service agent named Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) who is haunted by his failure to protect President Kennedy during the assassination and now years later sees the chance to redeem himself by saving the life of the present-day President from a madman (Malkovich).

Castle Rock agreed with Columbia to make Eastwood and Rene Russo, who also plays a Secret Service agent protecting the President, more active in the scenes leading up to and including the film's climax.

While Castle Rock and Columbia officials agreed that the production went smoothly, it wasn't without its acrimonious moments. In Apple's words, creative decisions about the movie's ending "became a cause celebre : We were constantly going back and forth with the studio about how big it should be."

According to Shafer, once financing arrangements with Columbia were set, "the understanding was we would retain creative control of the movie."

In April, 1992, Castle Rock bought the script in a deal valued at about $1.4 million.

A day or two later, Castle Rock received a call from Eastwood's agent, William Morris' Leonard Hirshan, saying his client was interested. "Within a very short period of time, we made a (firm) deal with Clint," recalled Shafer, noting the next step was deciding--with Eastwood (who had final approval)--on a director. They eventually agreed on Petersen ("Das Boot," "Shattered"). Castle Rock then called Hirshan to see if another of his clients, Malkovich, was available.

Shafer was quick to point out that Columbia's Canton was instrumental in pushing for Russo ("Lethal Weapon 3") to play the female lead.

Even before it reached Castle Rock, "In the Line of Fire" had a long, painful history. Its roots lie with its unsung hero Apple, an unknown movie producer who had studied under Martin Scorsese at New York University in the early '70s.

He moved to Los Angeles in the late '70s and formed his own production company. "In the Line of Fire" was born out of a time in 1964 when the then 15-year-old Apple witnessed a presidential motorcade carrying Lyndon Johnson through downtown Miami. It was the image of the "imposing" Secret Service agents surrounding the President that remained with the producer until 1983 when he decided to develop the idea into a movie.

He raised enough independent financing to hire his fellow NYU classmate Ken Friedman to write the first screenplay. About 18 months later, Apple and Friedman began shopping the script around Hollywood. Within two months they attracted director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter"), who liked the concept but wanted some script revisions.

At the same time he discovered that Dustin Hoffman had also been interested in a Secret Service project. The actor signed on to do "In the Line of Fire" as his next movie.

The package was pitched to Columbia Pictures, where Hoffman had a deal, and the studio agreed to make the movie. But, about a week later, the Columbia management team was replaced and David Puttnam was brought in as the studio's new chairman. Because of reported bad blood between Puttnam and Hoffman, the actor pulled his deal out of Columbia. Almost two years later he worked out details for a new arrangement at Warner Bros.

"By the time his deal was made, Hoffman lost interest in our project and wanted to do 'Rain Man,' " Apple said. "Our whole package fell apart." For two years, the producer met with nearly every independent film company and studio executive but to no avail.

Then a young executive at Disney's Hollywood Pictures, Scott Immergut, showed interest and suggested a rewrite. At that point Apple decided to discard Friedman's original draft and have Maguire start fresh. The producer conceived the new lead character of Frank Horrigan and the J.F.K. backdrop. The script was eventually submitted by Creative Artists Agency to such big-name clients as Robert Redford, Sean Connery and Warren Beatty, but nothing materialized.

Frustrated, Apple and Maguire asked CAA to help set the project up at a studio again. Imagine Entertainment was interested but wanted the lead character changed from an older agent to a young man, completely eliminating the J.F.K. aspect. Suddenly, Hollywood Pictures resurfaced. Needing an agent, Maguire was signed by United Talent Agency's Jeremy Zimmer, who engineered a bidding war for his spec script and 48 hours later had a deal in hand with Castle Rock. Two months later, the movie was in preproduction.

Looking back over the decade, an elated Apple says: "The 10 years of going back and forth has paid off. . . . I'm very proud of the result and I hope this can be an inspiration to a lot of people out there."

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