Heroic effort?

Times Staff Writer

Movie premieres usually are cause for celebration. But Stephen Norrington, the director of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," was in no mood to party at his film's Las Vegas unveiling. In fact, Norrington didn't even attend, having decided to turn his back on Hollywood. Asked on premiere night about his no-show director's whereabouts, star Sean Connery told the Las Vegas Sun: "Check the local asylum."

Norrington's agent says the British filmmaker didn't go nuts, but you couldn't fault the director for wanting to keep his distance.

An ambitious adaptation of an admired graphic novel, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" suffered more bad luck, volatile chemistry and ill-fated decisions than most movies in recent memory, from scenery-destroying floods and unusable special effects to on-set battles between director and star. With $17 million of the film's budget committed to Connery, the producers didn't have the resources to hire other familiar faces to round out the cast. Then, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" was thrown into the middle of the summer movie season, a battleground so competitive that underachieving works can be killed off in their first night in theaters.

Opening directly against "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," a movie overflowing with young talent and pricey visuals, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" nevertheless managed to survive its first test with the public, generating relatively strong ticket sales of $23.2 million its first weekend, according to estimates Sunday. That left it in second place, though far behind "Pirates," which grossed $46.4 million from Friday to Sunday.

But like a wild-card team that triumphs in the first round of the playoffs, "League" faces tough competition ahead.

There is no shortage of big summer titles yet to be released, including a sequel to the police yarn "Bad Boys" opening Friday. Said Bruce Snyder, 20th Century Fox's domestic distribution chief: "Every weekend, there is another event coming."

Looking back, some connected with the movie consider it a miracle it got this far.

"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" cost $95 million, a relative bargain in a season where "Hulk" and sequels to "Charlie's Angels" and "The Terminator" cost an average of more than $150 million apiece. That does not mean "League" was not risky. If a movie of its level were to fail completely, it single-handedly could slash a studio's overall summer profits. The blow would be particularly painful to Fox, whose three previous summer movies -- "Down With Love," "Wrong Turn" and "From Justin to Kelly" -- were all washouts.

In its genesis, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" looked like a brilliant idea. Comic book cognoscenti revere writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill's graphic novels about a Victorian band of crime fighters. Executives at Fox, the studio behind the comic book smash "X-Men" and its sequel, were equally excited. In a show business world addicted to superheroes like "Spider-Man," the stories delivered an array of fascinating -- and even recognizable -- characters.

Drawing on some of the more enduring fantasy and adventure figures from literature, the "League" tales are populated by H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain, Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, Bram Stoker's Mina Harker, H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

"But as brilliant as the graphic novel is, it is not a movie," said the film's screenwriter, James Dale Robinson, who also is a top comic book author. "And unfortunately, the reading level of the world has declined, so [introducing the literary characters] was something that had to be dealt with head-on."

Crafting a new plot wasn't Robinson's only writing challenge. Fox couldn't get the film rights to all of Moore and O'Neill's characters, so The Invisible Man is now known as An Invisible Man, and a Fu Manchu character was dropped.

The film's original script called for the turn-of-the-century League to prevent a flesh-eating poison gas from being introduced into New York's fledgling subway system. "But after Sept. 11, [the studio] said, 'You know what? This could actually happen,' " Robinson said. The setting was moved from New York to Venice, Italy; the poisoning angle was replaced with a plot involving a mad bomber.

To help attract American audiences to a movie mostly populated with 19th century Europeans, Fox asked that an American character be added. The result is Agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who also gives the film some youth appeal. "Agent Sawyer came about as the result of a stupid studio note that turned out to be brilliant," says Don Murphy, one of the film's producers.

Hiring Norrington was a calculated wager on a movie of this scope. He previously had directed the much more modestly budgeted "Blade," a 1998 comic book adaptation that was a solid box-office hit. But a colleague said the director, who declined to be interviewed, was uncomfortable working with large teams of actors and crew and bristled under studio supervision.

After "Blade," Norrington's next movie, "The Last Minute," was a tiny project with a smaller team, over which he had more control, serving as its writer, director, producer and co-editor. The film, however, never was released theatrically. "Stephen is incredibly creative," said another "League" producer, Trevor Albert. "He just doesn't love the pressure of a big group of people. The rewards don't outweigh the negatives."

Some films are blessed from the day the cameras start rolling. "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" was not among them. Having made "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Tears of the Sun" back to back, an exhausted Monica Bellucci dropped out of a co-starring role in "League" at the last minute, to be replaced by the unknown Peta Wilson. Epic rainstorms and floods in the Czech Republic destroyed $7 million in sets -- including, as luck would have it, a submarine -- and delayed production for three weeks.

Hoping to position the movie as a classy, Indiana Jones-style adventure, Fox didn't hesitate to sink most of its cast budget into Connery's salary. The studio had scored with Connery's 1999 drama "Entrapment," and the Scottish actor gave "League" instant credibility. But with so much money committed to the 72-year-old veteran, the film's makers say there was little left for the rest of the ensemble. So while "Pirates of the Caribbean" features the red-hot heartthrob Orlando Bloom ("The Lord of the Rings" films), "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" has the more obscure West ("A Walk to Remember").

A complicated effects sequence using a scale model of Venice did not turn out as envisioned. That forced the filmmakers to frantically scramble for a new effects shop, finding one only at the last minute because almost all were engaged making other summer movies.

As his quip at the premiere suggests, there was no love lost between Connery and Norrington, and they fought frequently during the film's making, according to numerous people who worked on the film. "Stephen is an immensely talented guy who comes from a visual effects background," said producer Murphy. "He's extremely good with action and visual effects. I'm not sure he's necessarily a people person."

Soon after "League" filming was completed, Norrington wrote a letter to producers who had been developing new projects for him, informing them that he would no longer work in Hollywood.

That wasn't Norrington's last walkout, according to two people who worked on "League." They say Norrington supervised editing only three of the film's seven reels. While Norrington did offer some post-production input and suggestions, they said, he opted out of some of the traditional roles played by directors during a film's editing -- adding new visual effects, presenting the film to the studio, and incorporating or fighting the studio's notes. "League" was shepherded to completion by Paul Rubell, nominated for an Oscar for his editing work on "The Insider."

"He was really happy with the way things were going," Murphy says of Norrington. "But he never would have been ready by July 11. He never believed the July 11 date was real. He never believed the hard financial budget number was real. He couldn't be bothered by limitations. And the studio is only concerned about limitations."

For its part, Fox says Norrington fulfilled all of his editing duties.

The behind-the-scenes dramas didn't deter the studio from sticking with a summer release date. The floods and visual effects problems meant the filmmakers had to race to complete the movie in time.

A number of people who worked on the film and even some Fox executives said that the film's release date would injure "League." Several people said they beseeched Fox to move the film into the fall, which sometimes can be a better time for movies that have more adult appeal. But Fox already has "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," its big Russell Crowe epic, opening Nov. 14.

Fox also says that "League" is not competing with "Pirates of the Caribbean." Rather, the studio says, its film offers a highbrow alternative for discriminating moviegoers looking for an original film, not a sequel or a film that began life as a theme park ride. So far, the release date does not look like a mistake. (Considering all the obstacles, from the floods to the fights, some people who worked on the movie believe it turned out remarkably well and are quite proud of it.

"The studio wanted something a little bit flashier, more of a summer movie," screenwriter Robinson said. "Stephen wanted something that was more introspective. I was relieved to find out that even though the complexity of the characters had been whittled down, the shadings of those complications still remained."

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Times staff writer Patrick Goldstein contributed to this story.

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