Adventures in Rewriting

In a cottage behind his redwood-shaded home here, Michael Chabon has spent the last 16 months turning his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" into a screenplay.

Six times he has sent drafts to producer Scott Rudin in New York, and each time the draft has come back with notes: Try again. So Chabon presses on with the seventh draft, hoping it will be the last.

Literary authors have a long and tortured relationship with the movie business, and it is rare for a writer to maintain a thriving reputation while struggling with the idiosyncrasies of moviemaking to maintain a simultaneous career as a screenwriter. Already a star in the world of serious literature whose short stories have been published in the New Yorker, Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bin) is trying to push himself into the same league in Hollywood.

Leading Chabon along the path is Rudin, producer of "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Angela's Ashes," "Clueless" and "The Truman Show." They seem at first an unlikely pair. Rudin--a gruff New Yorker as well known for his screaming tantrums and impatience as his ability to get movies made--and Chabon, the soft-spoken family man, holed up in Berkeley, tapping out stories filled with so many big words the books should come with a glossary.

But while he has made big money with more popular fare like "The Addams Family," "Sister Act" and their sequels, Rudin has a reputation as one of the most erudite producers working today, willing to gamble on literary fare unlikely to turn into the next blockbuster.

He has spent millions for the rights to novels like Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections"; Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," the adaptation of which will be released this year starring Nicole Kidman; Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain"; and Chabon's two novels, the first being "Wonder Boys," which headed to the screen starring Michael Douglas.

"You bet on people," Rudin said. "I have confidence in people's talent. I think Michael's writing has extraordinary humanity and behavior and detail and character. He's an authentic great writer."

Chabon says he's heard about the Rudin of myth but never seen it. Rudin, he says, has been sweet and solicitous with advice, often acting like a big brother and helping Chabon navigate a Hollywood that courts novelists with promises of big money, sucks them in and then, often, shoves them off a cliff.

"I don't know what would have happened if Scott wouldn't have optioned [his first screenplay], or had someone else optioned it," Chabon says. "I might have had a very negative experience that would have soured me on screenwriting. Cut Scott out of the picture? God forbid."

So when Rudin kicks the "Kavalier & Clay" screenplay back to him, at first there may be frustration and anger. But as he reflects, Chabon realizes Rudin is right. "I totally trust Scott Rudin's moviemaking acumen, so obviously there's more work to do," he says.

Chabon is the latest literary heavyweight to take a whack at Hollywood with varying degrees of success and disillusionment, a list that goes back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, and includes Norman Mailer and John Irving, who spent 13 years with four directors adapting his "Cider House Rules."

Even in that company, seldom has any writer of serious fiction had so much of his work bought by filmmakers in so short a time as Chabon, especially one whose only novel-turned-movie barely made back its costs. "It would make you think 'Wonder Boys' was a big hit," joked Curtis Hanson, the movie's director.

Regardless, producers and studios are gobbling up everything Chabon writes for six and seven figures, often before he has written a word--novels, short stories, even a children's book.

His next novel, "Hatzeplatz," was optioned by Rudin based on a three-page proposal about a Jewish detective married to an Inuit woman, and FDR's plan to turn Alaska into a Jewish homeland. The price? Somewhere around $250,000 for the option and $1 million if it's filmed.

Miramax optioned Chabon's children's novel, "Summerland," due out Oct. 1, for mid-six figures, plus a million if it's filmed. Chabon showed the company two chapters and an outline.

The studio also optioned "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" for six figures in an unusual deal that gives Miramax first crack at the eight short stories in the collection--once they are written.

Another short story, "Son of the Wolfman," is being developed into a movie for the Lifetime network.

Rudin bought "Kavalier & Clay" outright based on a 1 1/2-page pitch. The movie, which has not been cast, will be directed by Sydney Pollack. And Rudin says Chabon can write the screenplay for "Hatzeplatz" if he likes.

First, though, he's got to start the novel.

Becoming one of Hollywood's favorite writers doesn't seem to have gone to Chabon's head. "I prefer to think of myself as a guy who has never had a screenplay filmed," he says.

Chabon, 38, is a former resident of Los Angeles, the scene of several of his short stories. He lives in a two-story, brown-shingled house in Berkeley. Roses bloom in the frontyard. Toys are scattered about the living room and kitchen. The two eldest children, Sophie, 7 1/2, and Zeke, 5, are in school. Year-old Ida-Rose sits on the kitchen floor, dressed in a red jumper, while their 100-pound Bernese mountain dog gently steps around her.

Chabon works from 10 p.m. to 3 or 4 a.m. in the backyard cottage, and when he comes downstairs shortly after 10 a.m., he looks like he just woke up, his shoulder-length hair wet, with a few days' stubble on his face.

The night before, he hadn't shown for a reading at the San Francisco Public Library. His wife, Ayelet Waldman, a public defender-turned-mystery writer with her own TV deal, apologizes profusely to a writer. "This never happens," she says. "It's my job in this relationship to keep things going. We were at home reading the New York Review of Books when Michael said, 'What time is it?' I said, 'Oh, my God. You're supposed to be at the library.' "

Chabon has danced with movie projects and TV pilots for close to 15 years, almost from the time he published his first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," long before he was blessed by Rudin.

Chabon certainly didn't arrive in the entertainment world as a naif; he understood what he was getting into. He describes his attitude toward Hollywood as "preemptive cynicism."

While a book is the writer's solitary vision, a film script is much more collaborative. The script may get passed from screenwriter to screenwriter as studio executives who never have written a word give instructions, the stars demand changes and the director insists on rewrites during shooting.

For many novelists, the simplest way to deal with the film world is to sell the rights, take the money and go on to their next book. So far, most of Chabon's Hollywood ride has been without many of the bumps.

But then, nothing about Chabon's career has been ordinary. He jumped onto the literary scene in the late 1980s with the throttle pressed to the floor. William Morrow paid Chabon a $155,000 advance for "Pittsburgh," his UC Irvine master's thesis, when most first novelists receive $5,000 to $7,500.

After that early success came 5 1/2 years of struggling with his next book. He gave up after writing more than 1,000 pages and used that experience to crank out a first draft of "Wonder Boys" in 7 1/2 months, a book about a writer who can't finish his book.

By the time the novel was finished, he was newly married and his wife was pregnant. He didn't have a book deal for "Wonder Boys," and he needed money fast.

So he did what so many writers before him did when looking for cash--he wrote a screenplay, "The Gentleman Host," about two men on a tour boat looking for dance partners.

Rudin optioned the script in 1994, in what would become the key event in Chabon's show business career, one that aligned him with the producer. The relationship between the producer and novelist has worked so well that they have an informal deal that gives Rudin first crack at everything Chabon writes.

With "The Gentleman Host," Rudin pushed him hard, teaching him how to write a screenplay. The writer found the experience "very cruel and very fruitful for me. It was a mess when he optioned it, and when he finished with me it was really good."

The script never made it to the screen, and Chabon learned how capricious Hollywood can be. The screenplay wasn't filmed because the Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon movie "Out to Sea" also featured a cruise ship in its plot. But Chabon used the script as a calling card, showing producers he could write a filmable screenplay.

Chabon was busy writing the novel "Kavalier & Clay," so he wasn't available to take a crack at the "Wonder Boys" script. But he found the movie version so faithful to the spirit of the book that it encouraged him to take on the adaptation of "Kavalier & Clay," the story of two Jewish cousins in the early days of comic books in New York.

Often when he thinks he's solved one problem with the "Kavalier & Clay" script, the solution throws something else out of whack. "It's like those arcade games where a gopher head pops out," he says. "I fix this and then another head pops out."

Chabon will turn in a draft knowing something is wrong with it but unable to figure out what it is. Other times he'll think he's nailed it, only to have Rudin spot problems and tell him it's not ready.

"I think your immediate reaction is to say the hell with it," Chabon says. "That's the animal reaction and that's almost every time supplanted by much more reasoned, more mature further reflection."

Chabon, Rudin and Pollack, who directed "Tootsie," "Out of Africa" and "Random Hearts," recently spent three days in Rudin's midtown Manhattan office working on the script, with Pollack acting out scenes, using different voices for each character.

Problems sometimes arise when Chabon cuts a scene from the book, and Rudin wants it restored--a role reversal from the usual situation. "The obvious temptation is to be precious and try to hold onto things wonderful in the book and not so in the movie," Rudin says. "Michael is incredibly unprecious about his work, and I've been much more vigilant."

Chabon has seen the other side of Hollywood too, the one without Rudin's protection.

He wrote a movie treatment for "X-Men" in 1996. He thought he would be offered the screenplay, but a new director brought in his own writer.

In 1997, Jan De Bont, the director of "Speed," optioned Chabon's script "The Martian Agent," which the writer describes as "Lawrence of Arabia on Mars in 1899." It was never made.

There was a pitch for a TV series about a Pittsburgh rock band. It went nowhere, but a TNT executive liked it enough to ask him to write another treatment, this one about a pair of families in Oakland. That one was dropped after an executive shuffle at the network.

A third effort, which would have aired in 2000, was turned down by CBS.

Television, with its hours of episodes, lends itself to more novelistic treatments, Chabon says, with multiple plots and more time than movies.

"I like television," Chabon says. "I get television. I understand it. I feel like I know how to write it."

Each night, when his family is sleeping, Chabon walks into the cottage in the backyard and goes to work on the screenplay of "Kavalier & Clay." A poster of Jackie Robinson crossing home plate sits above his desk, inspiration for "Summerland," a 500-page book about baseball-playing fairies that the publisher expects to have "Harry Potter" crossover appeal. The first printing will be 250,000 copies, enormous for a children's book, and will have a $300,000 marketing campaign.

Miramax asked him to write the screenplay, but, he says he just doesn't have time. After "Kavalier & Clay," he's got "Hatzeplatz" and those short stories.

Chabon doesn't worry about getting sucked into show business. Of course, it helps that his fiction is selling for six and seven figures, too.

"When I was 10, I wasn't thinking of wanting to write screenplays," Chabon says. "I wanted to write novels. It's OK if nothing I write gets filmed. They can't really hurt me. I've been very fortunate that I have the luxury of this other thing to protect me. If it gets too uncomfortable, I can go home. I don't live there. Because I have my fiction; that's where my heart is. I don't think it can be broken."

*

Jeff Gottlieb is a Times staff writer.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°