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The ‘Diaries’ of a Miracle : After 15 Years, Jim Carroll’s Cult Classic Makes It to Film

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

At the last minute, underground poet/novelist/musician Jim Carroll canceled plans to attend the Sundance Film Festival premiere of the movie version of his 1978 cult classic, “The Basketball Diaries.” The self-described recluse opted to stay home in New York to meet with a priest--all in the name of research for a new novel Carroll is writing.

“I’ve been corresponding with this priest from the Vatican who grew up in New York City . . . so I can’t blow him off,” Carroll said in a phone interview last week. “He investigates miracles and he’s got the goods I need.”

In many ways, it’s a miracle that “The Basketball Diaries” was finally made.

It has taken some 15 years of countless attempts by Hollywood to adapt the writer’s from-the-gut, journal-like entries about growing up a teen-age junkie on New York’s mean streets. And the 44-year-old Carroll is thrilled that someone finally got it right. The movie, produced by Liz Heller and John Bard Manulis for Island Pictures on a shoestring budget of $4 million, and directed by first-timer Scott Kalvert, debuts at the festival Friday and will be released in theaters by New Line Cinema on April 21.

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Leonardo DiCaprio, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to a young Carroll, landed the role that for years had been coveted by many young actors, including River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke and Eric Stoltz. Nearly every year since its publication, the book had been optioned to various parties--including Sundance founder Robert Redford and actor John Malkovich.

Carroll recalls that the first option on his book was by two entertainment lawyers from New York who were moving to Los Angeles to start a movie company and talked of Matt Dillon starring and John Cassavetes directing.

The closest a movie ever got to being made was by Columbia Pictures in the late ‘80s with a script by Jeff Fiskin (“Cutter’s Way”). Anthony Michael Hall was to have starred.

“I thought (Hall) would have been perfect and it was a good screenplay,” says Carroll, “but right before they were going to start, (Coca-Cola) bought Columbia and kicked out all of the executives.”

As it turned out, Carroll says, “I couldn’t have imagined having a better person than Leonardo playing the part.” Carroll, who was a consultant on the film and appears in a cameo role as a junkie, hung out with DiCaprio whenever he visited the set, and the two apparently bonded.

“Jim is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met,” DiCaprio told The Times by telephone from Paris, where he’s filming his role as French poet Arthur Rimbaud in “Total Eclipse,” a 19th-Century period drama.

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Sounding wise beyond his 20 years, the actor says Carroll’s “been to places that most people try to avoid--drugs, depression, living on the streets, the loneliness. . . . He’s been to the depths of his own darkness and come out surviving. He’s truly a walking miracle.”

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When he first heard DiCaprio was interested in the role, Carroll had no idea who the actor was. He had not yet seen “This Boy’s Life,” in which DiCaprio stars with Robert DeNiro, and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?"--for which he received a best supporting Oscar nomination--had not yet hit the theaters.

It was “Diaries” producer Liz Heller, now senior vice president of new media at Capitol Records, who really made the movie finally happen. A couple of years ago, when she was running the audiovisual division at Island Records, she ran into an old pal, music video director Scott Kalvert. He told her how much he wanted to option Carroll’s book and make it into a movie.

Kalvert, 30, had grown up in New York a big fan of Carroll’s. “I read the book when I was 15 and always wanted to make it because it’s a great coming-of-age story. It was like reading ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ ” Kalvert said by phone last week.

Before reuniting with Heller, Kalvert had unsuccessfully made the studio rounds with the project. “Nobody really wanted to make the movie. Some wanted (the locale) changed to Seattle because Seattle was cool. Someone wanted to change it so Jim wasn’t the one involved in drugs, and I had a specific take on it,” says Kalvert, well-known for his work with such musical artists as Marky Mark, Belinda Carlisle and Guns N’ Roses.

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Heller went to her Island boss, Chris Blackwell, and pitched the movie. He loved the idea and agreed to put up $4 million.

Heller hired another Carroll devotee, Bryan Goluboff, to write the screenplay. The movie will be released almost a year to the day production began. “How many times does that ever happen?” asks Heller. “It’s like a dream!”

It’s no less a dream for Goluboff, who as a young teen used to follow Carroll around Greenwich Village where he was playing rock ‘n’ roll and hanging out at the St. Mark’s Place poetry scene. Carroll was immediately taken with the script, saying Goluboff “had such a great ear for the character.”

Goluboff had to essentially create Carroll’s character since he is not a figure in the book, but the storyteller. From 1963-66, beginning when he was 13, Carroll documented his escapades as a Catholic high school basketball star, who, along with his three best-friend teammates, spiraled into an underworld of heroin, crime, sex and violence.

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Goluboff refers to his screenplay as “an extreme adaptation,” meaning, “we took some liberties . . . not everything that’s great in the book happens in the movie--we had to make it a film.”

He says he took the book’s most interesting experiences “and made Jim the central character.” The main key to all the characters, he notes, is “their relationship to evil.” Whereas the Mickey character played by Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark) “had badness in him,” Goluboff says “Jim’s character was always ambivalent toward violence and that’s where the arc comes in.”

Probably the biggest challenge Goluboff faced was how to deal with the movie’s ending since the book leaves off with Carroll, 16, returning to the needle after temporarily getting clean in prison.

“That wasn’t the truth of his life,” says Goluboff. “He made it out--his art saved him.”

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Goluboff admits that his own original ending was “too Hollywood” and ultimately didn’t work. He rewrote the ending to reflect reality.

“It’s the ambivalence that saves him because as he reads back through this whole catalogue of sins, he knows they add up to a world he has to leave. . . . But, though he won this battle with heroin, the temptation will always stalk him.”

Carroll agrees the movie’s ending is an accurate depiction of the truth. “That’s the way it was for me. I went back and forth for years before it finally crushed me.” He said he was “really strung out” in the early ‘70s, a period he chronicled in his “Basketball” sequel, “Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973.” Though Carroll kicked heroin in 1975, he says he continued using cocaine until eight years ago and has been clean since.

Despite the many years it took to see “Basketball Diaries” make it to the big screen, Carroll believes the movie’s day has finally come.

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In a true poet’s philosophical fashion, he muses, “In the Reagan years, the studios were really gun-shy about this. I waited a long time to publish my book and it took a long time for the movie to be made, but some things you can’t force too quickly. Everything has its time.”


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