What do Harrison Ford, Geena Davis, Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas, Demi Moore, Sandra Bullock, Ben Affleck, Ellen DeGeneres and Tea Leoni all have in common?
They were all, at one time, potential stars of “The Runaway Bride,” a movie that survived a 10-year roller-coaster ride of ups and downs before it was finally made this year, reuniting the “Pretty Woman” team of Richard Gere, Julia Roberts and director Garry Marshall. Released to a chorus of thumbs-down reviews, the film nevertheless opened at No. 1 on the box-office charts with a weekend total of around $35 million, by far the best opening ever for a Roberts film.
“Bride” may seem like it was custom-built to reunite Roberts and Gere but that’s not the case. The decade-long struggle to get the romantic comedy made illustrates how large a role timing, luck and perseverance play in the filmmaking process.
“The lesson here is that good material drives a movie, and when you have it, you should never give up,” says Scott Kroopf, president of production at Interscope Communications and one of the film’s many producers. “If you have strong interest from the talent community, then you have to lock into a tunnel-vision mode, even if it sometimes seems that you’d need a time machine to get to the end of the tunnel.”
One sign of the film’s lengthy gestation period: It has enough credited filmmakers to field a baseball team, including four producers, three executive producers and three co-producers. But the filmmakers say that when it comes to the crowded credit box, appearances are deceiving.
“Someone asked me the other day if it was a mess, like a rugby scrum of people wrestling for producer credit,” says producer Robert Cort, a former Interscope top executive. “But in this case, the film was like a relay race where the baton got passed from person to person. It went through so many incarnations that when I saw [Creative Artists Agency agent] Rick Nicita at the premiere I told him, ‘I think your entire client list was attached to this movie at one time or another.’ ”
The film got its start in 1989 when Dave Madden, now Cort’s producing partner, and Bill Horborg, then a Paramount executive, pitched the story of a bride who abandons her suitors at the altar to then-Paramount production chief Gary Lucchesi.
“It was a great commercial concept--I always thought of it as this wonderful Judy Holliday movie,” says Lucchesi, now head of production at Lakeshore Entertainment, one of the film’s producers.
The original script was penned by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parrott, the credited writers on the film. One of the first actors to see the script, in 1992, was Geena Davis, then at the height of her career. Once she committed to the film, the producers sought an actor for the role of the cynical New York newspaper columnist who comes to the bride’s small town to investigate her escapades. The first star to step up to the plate was Ford, who not only liked the script but was open to working with a younger, non-A-list director.
The producers chose director Michael Hoffman, who was coming off “Soapdish,” a comedy hit for Paramount. It seemed like a perfect package, but Hoffman had reservations about the script, which he thought needed a more realistic premise. He brought in Elaine May, a rewrite specialist, to help sort things out.
“We thought they were doing a dialogue tweak, but they decided to do a structural rewrite,” recalls Kroopf. “And before we knew it, everything fell apart. We went from having a go movie to just another development deal.”
Biggest Problem: Finding a Director
Finding the right director was always the most problematic part of the equation. “Most directors don’t look at romantic comedies as a good vehicle for them,” Cort says. “Until Garry Marshall came in, our directors always had some reservations about the material.”
But the script continued to be a magnet for top actors. Over the next several years, a string of notable stars, running the gamut from Gibson and Douglas to Moore and DeGeneres, were mentioned as possible leads. At one point, in mid-decade, Leslie Dixon (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) wrote a new draft of the script, which attracted renewed interest. Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Julia Roberts’ agent, showed the script to her client, who liked it, but as Goldsmith-Thomas put it, “wasn’t absolutely sure” about doing the film.
“The picture had the same commitment problems that the character in the story has,” Kroopf says. “We could get actors to the altar, but then they’d suddenly start having second thoughts and disappear on us.”
In early 1996, Bullock came on board. At her urging, the producers went back to the original script. But everyone agreed that the original script hadn’t fully explained a central premise: Why does the bride always run away? After a lengthy search, the producers hired Audrey Wells, best known for writing “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” to help with the screenplay.
Although the Writers Guild would not award her a shared credit, Wells not only came up with a new ending, but wrote a key scene that encapsulated the bride’s dilemma--she’d always pretended to be what her suitor wanted, instead of being herself. The new draft especially energized Paramount Chairwoman Sherry Lansing, who was convinced the script could attract a major talent package. When Bullock couldn’t commit, Lansing began looking elsewhere.
To jump-start the project, Lansing brought in Lakeshore Entertainment as a producing partner. At first, Lakeshore co-chairman Tom Rosenberg tried going with a younger cast, lining up Affleck and Leoni. When Affleck passed, Rosenberg approached Gere, who’d been working with him on another project.
He gave Gere the Wells version of the script on a Friday, saying, “I know people have said this to you 100 times, but just read this,” Rosenberg recalls.
On Monday, Gere called and said, “I love it. If you can get Julia, I’m in.” Rosenberg had just done a film with one of Goldsmith-Thomas’ clients, so he persuaded her to have Roberts read the script. Roberts and Gere spoke on the phone that week and agreed to do the film.
“People have been trying to get them back together for nine years,” Rosenberg says. “And suddenly it happened--it was all settled in a week.”
Roberts and Gere made a joint phone call to Marshall. He needed wooing; he was just finishing “The Other Sister,” and had promised his wife that they would go to Australia on a much-needed vacation. “They said, ‘Get off the phone, we want to talk to your wife,’ ” Marshall recalls. “They told her things like ‘How often do we get a chance to do this?’ and ‘We’ll take good care of him,’ so finally I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ ”
Marshall did a little punch-up work on the script, incorporating some Gere-Roberts suggestions and a few Wells touches (“I always call up the writers and ask them: ‘What did you leave out of your draft that you thought was good?’ ”). He says Lansing was an indefatigable supporter; when he needed extra money to reshoot the scene in which Roberts first tries on her wedding gown, the studio came through without hesitation.
Everyone Wanted a Hand in Project, Marshall Says
Marshall’s only complaint was about the multitude of kibbitzers, from Paramount chief Jonathan Dolgen on down, who got involved in picking music for the film’s soundtrack. “It was a big circus,” he says. “Nobody can give you a joke, but everybody has ideas about the music.”
Working with his “Pretty Woman” team was a breeze, Marshall says. “Richard had been very cautious on ‘Pretty Woman,’ but this time he was a lot more willing to be funny. Mostly we talked in our own little shorthand. All I had to do was yell ‘Action’ and ‘Shut up.’ ”
The presence of two big stars ratcheted up the film’s budget to $70 million, which includes a $17-million payday for Roberts and about $12 million for Gere, with both stars getting a piece of the back-end gross. Once Roberts agreed to do the film, Paramount partnered with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, who co-financed the film and has the foreign rights.
Although insiders say Disney became involved because Roberts owed the studio a commitment--known in Hollywood parlance as a “call,” for her next film--Disney Chairman Joe Roth said the deal did not involve an “official” call.
“We’ve supported Julia’s production company for years, we’ve worked for years with Garry and we’ve been involved in five recent co-productions with Paramount, so it just seemed like a good fit for everybody,” Roth explains.
The film’s producers credit Rosenberg with running the crucial, final leg of the film’s 10-year relay race.
“When you get a ‘yes’ from somebody, you have to be willing to jam your foot on the gas and really go,” Rosenberg says. “There are times when you have to be patient waiting for the right cast to come together, but once you’ve got the right ingredients, you have to be relentless about making things happen.”