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Writers look in the mirror for ‘Out of Order’

Special to The Times

As the sun poured into the Santa Monica Canyon living room of Wayne and Donna Powers on a recent Saturday afternoon, film lights further illuminated the successful screenwriters as they spoke for the camera about depression and drinking, drugs and adultery, family and failings in a nearly 20-year marriage. Two marriages, actually.

One is theirs. Another is fictional, but strongly inspired by their own, as portrayed in their new television series, “Out of Order,” premiering Sunday on Showtime. That explains the cameras in their living room, shooting a promotional video for the channel.

The series takes an unusually frank look at intimate issues in the union of an affluent Pacific Palisades screenwriting couple. The Powerses are its executive producers and writers, and Wayne its primary director.

How much is fact, how much fiction? Deft promoters, the Powerses disclosed here, teased there. “Sometimes it’s like a mirror of our lives,” Wayne said. “Sometimes it’s like a fun-house mirror.”

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What matters, says Henry Jaglom, an independent film director known for tackling similar themes, is that the couple present “an incredibly honest portrait of the complexity of functioning within a marriage in this business.”

Jaglom had hoped to produce “Out of Order” for theatrical distribution. But after financing fell through, the project found its way to Showtime, the premium cable channel that adopted a new policy in December that veered away from its former reliance on TV movies in favor of original series.

Showtime even agreed to the Powerses’ demand for creative control, such as allowing Wayne to direct, despite having previously done only one short and one low-budget thriller, “Skeletons in the Closet.” “It was a leap of faith,” said Gary Levine, Showtime’s head of series development.

In the show, Donna Powers’ alter ego, Lorna (played by “Frasier” regular Felicity Huffman), descends into deep depression, alcoholism and substance abuse, rendering her unable to work and alienating her from her husband, Mark (played by Eric Stoltz). He tries to cope, although his wife has become quite different from the woman he married. His cravings for intimacy lead him into an affair with a married friend, Danni (played by Kim Dickens), whose husband’s business frequently takes him away.

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Mark’s view

Viewers see everything from Mark’s point of view, presented as a confessional with the audience as his jury. He prosecutes himself over his marriage and his affair, and he questions how he earns his living: He feels he should be writing angst-ridden explorations of the human condition -- such as those created by Wayne’s idols Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes From a Marriage”) and Woody Allen (“Husbands and Wives”).

Instead, Mark and Lorna turn out popcorn movies, as the Powerses have done with Renny Harlin’s action thriller “Deep Blue Sea” (also written by Duncan Kennedy). The couple’s high-octane contemporary remake of “The Italian Job” opens today. Costing about $75 million to make, it’s their biggest-budget film yet.

As for “Out of Order’s” Mark, “what he’s asking,” says Donna, “is ‘am I guilty of not being a good person, or am I just human?’ ”

At the same time, Mark imagines that cameras follow him all the time. “Ever since he was a kid,” says Wayne, “he imagined that his life was a movie or a reality TV series.”

Much like Wayne. At school in New Hampshire, Wayne would throw himself into local controversies to land press interviews, he said during a break from filming the Showtime video. He was sitting on the patio by his pool. Like so much else with the Powerses, their home bears an uncanny resemblance to Mark and Lorna’s house in “Out of Order.”

In interviews, Donna repeatedly sidestepped the question of whether she had suffered clinical depression. But Huffman said by telephone from Vancouver, Canada, where the series films, that the Powerses had told her that Donna had been depressed.

Danni, Mark’s extramarital paramour, was modeled after several friends of the couple whom Dickens said she met at barbecues and parties in Los Angeles. Donna volunteers that Wayne has not had an affair.

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Therapy via script

Stoltz says he easily relates to his role as Wayne’s surrogate. “I have been in relationships with alcoholics and manic depressives and bipolars, and I’ve been in therapy for about 20 years trying to find out why,” he said by phone from Vancouver.

“I talked a lot about the script and certain scenes with my therapists. I was in therapy with the script,” he said with a laugh. “It sounds pathetically Hollywood, but it was helpful.”

To write the series, Wayne said that pretending to be Mark, he saw a psychiatrist. He brought photographs showing himself with Dickens and said the two were real-life adulterous lovers, Mark and Danni. Wayne tape-recorded the sessions, then used the material for scripts, particularly Mark’s therapy scenes. Using makeup and camera tricks, Stoltz also plays Mark’s psychiatrist, attired and gesticulating to suggest the shrink played by Judd Hirsch in “Ordinary People.”

The cheekiness continues with Peter Bogdanovich playing a manipulative director whose career has skyrocketed, fallen and risen again, as has Bogdanovich’s. “It’s fun playing a slight parody of myself,” Bogdanovich said by telephone from an editing room in Los Angeles, “or any director, directors being sort of jerks -- jerks who are interesting, sacred monsters.”

The real and fictional come into play here too, since Bogdanovich directed Stoltz in “Mask,” the actor’s 1985 breakthrough role opposite Cher.

Meanwhile, Huffman’s real-life husband, actor William H. Macy, portrays Lorna’s enabler of a companion, who drinks and does drugs with her, then tries to woo her.

So where does fact end and fiction begin in this show? “Eric slept with Donna,” said Macy. “I slept with Donna. Donna slept with Wayne. Wayne slept with Felicity. Felicity slept with me and I slept with Eric.”

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“That’s pretty accurate,” Donna said with a laugh when told of Macy’s report. Catching herself, she quickly added, “It’s not true. But, it sounds fun.”

*

‘Out of Order’

Where: Showtime

When: Series premieres 10 p.m. Sunday; subsequent episodes air at 10 p.m. Mondays

Rating: The network has rated the series TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)

Production credits: Writers and executive producers, Donna and Wayne Powers; directed by Wayne Powers

Mark...Eric Stoltz

Lorna...Felicity Huffman

Danni...Kim Dickens

Walter...Dyllan Christopher

Annie...Justine Bateman

Zach...Peter Bogdanovich

Steven...William H. Macy


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