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The ‘Cruel’ Reality of a TV Adaptation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The movie “Cruel Intentions” revolves around a rich New York City high school girl who snorts cocaine from her crucifix and bets her stepbrother he can’t deflower a certain virgin. She offers him sexual relations with her as the prize, if he wins.

But adapting the movie to fit more straight-laced network television sensibilities isn’t the only problem producers have encountered in turning “Cruel Intentions” into Fox’s one-hour drama “Manchester Prep.” Instead, they’ve been struggling with such core issues as plot, tone and meeting the rigorous production schedule of television.

The situation reached such a critical stage that production on the series about life in an elite New York City prep school, from Neil H. Moritz Productions and Sony’s Columbia TriStar studio, has been shut down until the second week in October so the show can get its house in order. The stumbling seems largely due to the steep learning curve for the first-time TV series producers, Neil Moritz and Roger Kumble, who were also the team behind the movie.

Although Fox insiders are taking bets on whether the series will ever get on the air, Columbia TriStar says the show is on track, noting that a new executive producer, Jim Parriott, has just been added to the team. His extensive television credits include executive producing duties on NBC’s “Dark Skies,” CBS’s “Matt Waters” and the CBS/USA Network vampire series “Forever Knight.” Parriott will take over day-to-day duties from Kumble. Kumble will remain with the season but it is unclear exactly how he and Parriott will share responsibility.

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The series had some breathing room because it was always slated for a later fall launch, a strategy Fox uses often to avoid having to preempt new shows for its sports events, in this case baseball games that would interfere with its Thursday 8 p.m. time slot. A later launch also avoided an immediate show-down with the WB’s own drama about high school cliques, “Popular.”

Signs of trouble emerged even before the show started on its strict production schedule, when an “Entertainment Tonight” camera caught the series filming a scene where one girl shows another how to get sexual pleasure from horseback riding. A parents’ television group expressed shock and the network quickly said the scene would never have been approved for airing.

Moritz says the producers were merely doing what gets done in the movies, shooting different angles of the same scene that can later be cut together to make it “more explicit or less explicit.” He calls the brouhaha “really unfair.” Others note, however, that the scene would likely never have been shot to begin with on a routine TV set, where the tight schedule prohibits such multiple scene-shooting.

Moritz says the show’s temporary shutdown has nothing to do with concerns over content on Fox’s part; instead, he says the show needed to get a handle on where the series was headed and who the characters were. He says the break will allow “long-range thinking to figure out exactly where we’re going to go,” mapping out episodes and story lines and getting the tone right, because the series is more comedic than the film.

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“Friends tell me this is par normal for how TV works,” insists Moritz, whose movie credits, in addition to “Cruel Intentions,” include “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” “We’re lucky we were never slated to go on ‘til at least December . . . which has given us time.” Fox hasn’t set a premiere date for the show, which has already shot two episodes in addition to the pilot.

“Cruel Intentions” was never an obvious choice to be spun off into a TV show for a broadcast network. Even in this television season, where networks are scrambling to compete with edgier cable competition and nothing seems too far-fetched, some changes had to be made: The cocaine is gone, as is the profanity that laced the movie. A scene from the R-rated film that involved two girls kissing now takes place between a boy and a girl.

One plot-line from the movie--where Kathryn (played by Amy Adams), the stepsister, tries to initiate a naive Cecile (Keri Lynn Pratt) to the world of sex--has been kept, but creator Kumble said in an August interview he’s “trying not to send a message that promiscuous sex is OK.” Many of the risque jokes are in double-entendre form, so adults will get it while kids might not. “We’re not trying to be bawdy, we’re trying to be intelligent,” he said. Kumble, who directed the movie, admitted he’s trying to “push the envelope,” but noted “it’s not like they’re handing me millions of dollars to go misbehave.”

He says the Fox standards executives have been particularly concerned with the incestuous undercurrent in the stepbrother-stepsister relationship. At Fox’s request, the pilot, as initially shot, was edited for airing to make it clear that there was no sexual relationship between the two. Although that aspect of the relationship was a central part of the movie, Kumble said he doesn’t see the restrictions posed by TV as a problem. If he ultimately wants the step-siblings to get together, he says, he figures he can have the parents divorce, making the kids no longer related.

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A huge fan of nighttime soaps who wrote his Northwestern University independent study project on “Dallas,” Kumble said he prefers to think of the show as “a battle between good and evil,” a la “Star Wars.”

It’s that tension that producers are trying to clarify while the show is out of production, to avoid telling the same stories again and again. The series starts not where the movie ended but where it begins, with the stepbrother character of Sebastian Valmont (many characters have the same names as in the cynical, classic French novel from which the movie was derived, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos) moving to New York and meeting his new sibling rival. Sebastian was evil throughout most of the film, until being transformed by the power of love. In the series, however, his nicer side is quickly exposed.

That change allowed more dramatic tension to be woven in; early episodes of the series are driven by Sebastian (Robin Dunne) being pulled between Kathryn and her nemesis, Annette (Sarah Thompson), the headmaster’s good daughter, to whom he is attracted despite her uncool ways. Had the characters stayed true to the movie, the TV audience would have had “no one to root for, and especially in television, I think the audience needs that,” Kumble said.

The TV spinoff got under development long before the March opening of the movie, a modest box-office success (taking in just under $40 million in the U.S.) that received mixed reviews. A technician helping to cut trailers for the movie suggested that the premise might work for TV. “We never wanted to do a sequel because it’s a tragedy [there’s a death in the end] and we didn’t want to cheapen the characters, but the characters were so much fun,” Kumble said.

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Given its subject matter, the series would have seemed a more obvious fit for a cable channel, where the premise might not have needed toning down, but the producers always had a broadcast network pickup as their goal. “For me to invest my time, I wanted to hit a large audience,” Kumble said.

Meanwhile, Moritz has more than “Manchester Prep” on his mind. In addition to a couple of films in various stages of development and production, he is also spending time on another new fall series, the UPN comedy “Shasta McNasty,” and he says Fox has just bought another TV show from his company.


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