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‘Phone Booth': A 30-year project wouldn’t hang up

Special to The Times

Even having 34 of my screenplays produced didn’t prepare me for the mad response that would await “Phone Booth.” For years I’d struggled to construct a movie that would unfold entirely within the confines of a solitary telephone booth. No flashbacks, no cutaways. Everything would be seen from the point of view of the man trapped inside.

I’d actually cooked up this notion during a three-hour lunch with Alfred Hitchcock at Universal. Hitch had made a movie entirely in a lifeboat, and perhaps his most enduring classic confined Jimmy Stewart to a wheelchair peering out into a courtyard full of windows. Hitch had also trapped Tippi Hedren in a phone booth surrounded by swarms of homicidal birds.

I knew he’d go for the idea, but neither of us could figure out exactly how to flesh it out into a feature. Hitch sent me off to solve the puzzle, which I never did -- in his lifetime. When I ran into him at a party after the “Frenzy” premiere, he demanded, “How are you coming along on our phone booth movie?”

Three decades later, after I’d already sold the script, I attended a Directors Guild event at which Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, mentioned several projects her dad had always wanted to make -- one of which, she said, was to take place entirely inside a telephone booth. Hitch had never forgotten. I wish he’d still been around when I finally solved the puzzle: A sniper on the other end of the line would be keeping our hero a prisoner in that booth for the entire movie.

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I’d known better than to pitch such an idea to any studio. Nobody would believe it could work. This had to be a “spec script.”

I’d signed on with Creative Artists Agency and soon everybody in town was reading “Phone Booth” and asking to meet me. I was the new kid on the block. Cruise-Wagner wanted to buy the script, although Tom was tied up on “Mission: Impossible 2" -- so I decided to take the offer from 20th Century Fox.

Soon afterward, Steven Spielberg came across the script, which he briefly toyed with directing. When we met at an Oscar-night party, he personally told me, “I’m still kicking myself for not getting that script. If Hitchcock were alive he’d want to direct ‘Phone Booth.’ ” Hearing that was reward enough for writing it. Nothing could ever top that moment.

The original CAA package proposed Joel Schumacher as director, with Nicolas Cage starring. Then unexpectedly, Mel Gibson showed interest in doing both jobs.

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Fox Chairman Tom Rothman cautioned me that Mel wanted to change the principal character from a hungry publicist into a crooked lawyer -- which would have required a top-to-bottom rewrite. When we met, I told him he was wrong. But at a second meeting, he had a few clever notions on how to add twists and I told him, “I’m going to use your ideas whether you act in this picture or not,” to which he was immediately agreeable.

We hung out together for most of the week and Mel never once mentioned switching the principal character to an attorney. Finally I brought it up. Mel flopped back in his chair and shrugged, “Don’t pay any attention to me. Sometimes I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about!” But other difficulties would soon arise, and the deal fell through.

Will Smith was now excited about starring, though, and red-hot Michael Bay wanted to direct.

Michael’s first words upon meeting me were, “OK, how do we get this thing out of the damn telephone booth?”

My Fox executives went into shock. Within days, Michael Bay was out and the Hughes brothers had been brought aboard to direct.

Before too long, Will Smith abruptly withdrew in favor of starring in “Ali,” and the Hugheses were reassigned to direct “From Hell.” I began to suspect this was the project from hell. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robin Williams were interested, but the studio wanted to go younger. Robin still wanted to do the voice of the sniper, as did Anthony Hopkins, who promised me that he’d use his “Hannibal Lecter voice.” Fox passed. Then Jim Carrey suddenly materialized as star, with Schumacher back on.

I was a happy man indeed when Jim Carrey appeared on “Entertainment Tonight” touting “Phone Booth” as his very next movie. It seemed to be a fait accompli, but within a month Carrey had opted out in favor of doing “The Majestic.”

I was getting scared. The studio was becoming antsy about the script. If so many top stars were dropping out, the material must be to blame.

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The go-ahead

I was in New York several months later, still licking my wounds, when an urgent call from CAA reached me. “This time they’re really going forward. It’s a definite! Schumacher’s still directing, but with Colin Farrell in the lead.”

“Who?”

“Just the hottest young actor in Hollywood. We represent him.”

Fortunately, “Tigerland” was opening the following day and I was the first one on line. I felt much better after seeing him create sparks up on the screen.

Winter had set in, so “Phone Booth” would be shot on a downtown Los Angeles street re-dressed to duplicate the Big Apple.

When I visited the set, an exhausted Colin Farrell staggered out of the booth and collapsed in my arms muttering, “Thanks a lot.” It seemed the poor guy hadn’t slept for a week. The film was being shot in continuity, and he was wearing himself out to re-create the character’s emotional collapse.

As I watched filming progress, I was disturbed by one crucial detail. Schumacher had hired a gifted actor, Ron Eldard, and placed him in the window of a building opposite the booth so Colin would have someone to play against. This was fine except that Ron’s voice lacked the mesmerizing tone I’d imagined.

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When I told Joel how I felt, he simply replied, “Do you really think so?” -- and then went on to hire Kiefer Sutherland to redo the role.

Since Colin Farrell had since been cast in a number of parts elsewhere, Fox decided to hold off on releasing “Phone Booth” and allow him to become familiar to movie audiences. Sadly, both “American Outlaws” and “Hart’s War” were major disappointments. We’d have to wait for Spielberg’s “Minority Report” to firmly establish him. The delay was agonizing.

The film was being held for nearly a year -- not because it was bad, but because its star was on the verge of becoming huge.

A new date was set for the opening: Nov. 15, 2002. A perfect time for awards consideration. Three years after it all began, I journeyed to the Toronto Film Festival with Joel and the cast for what turned out to be an overwhelmingly favorable response from the 2,400 people in the audience. All was well. Then, on Oct. 2, the shootings began in Wheaton, Md.

As a rampage of murders followed, it became clear that this was not the time to release a thriller that featured a sniper. 20th Century Fox wisely agreed and withdrew the film from its schedule.

Hearing that we had a giant billboard over Times Square, I’d rushed down with my camera just in time to see the cherry picker going up and the sign coming down. That moment hurt the most.

Despite all this, Fox maintained its faith in the movie and eventually announced an April 4 release.

In the interim, Colin had finally attracted the attention he deserved in “The Recruit” and “Daredevil.” We’d now be going out with an established name backed by a huge ad campaign. I wondered -- what else could happen now to screw us up? A war?

Larry Cohen has more than 20 films to his credit as a writer, director and producer. His credits include the thrillers “Best Seller” and “Guilty as Sin.”


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