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The third-time charm

Times Staff Writer

DIANE KEATON is on the verge of tears.

Sybil Stone, the matriarch Keaton plays in “The Family Stone,” has plenty to cry about. Christmas is approaching, and her health is failing, her family is fighting and her oldest son is about to marry the wrong woman. But it’s not Sybil who is getting all weepy. It is Keaton herself, who has just finished her last day of work on the ensemble film.

“What a great family. What a great experience,” the actress says as the film’s cast and crew wedge into the Stones’ dining room set. Too choked up to say much more, Keaton starts hugging her colleagues.

There’s plenty of gratitude sloshing around inside this Culver City soundstage.

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“We’re all in this room because you had faith in us,” producer Michael London (“Sideways”) says to Keaton. Thomas Bezucha, who wrote and directed “The Family Stone,” then tells Keaton how decades ago he stalked her in her Manhattan neighborhood, hoping for a chance encounter with an actress he worshiped.

It might be a good thing that he never ran into her and scared her off. Because here’s Keaton, 20 years later, wrapping up a starring role in front of Bezucha’s cameras. “It was a long time coming,” the director says to the actress.

The same certainly can be said of “The Family Stone” itself.

While scores of movies spend countless years in development hell, Bezucha’s suffered an even crueler fate: repeated false starts. “The Family Stone” nearly commenced production, only to fall apart, not once but twice. In one instance in early 2003, Bezucha (pronounced like the bubble gum) had to shut down when his financing fell through a mere week before rehearsals. “People started to look at you like you had cancer,” he says of his bad luck.

For a brief while, “The Family Stone,” a comedy about a family wrestling with loss and love, risked the millstone all filmmakers dread: being deemed a tainted project. Bezucha nevertheless persevered, waiting for the stars to align. They finally did.

Where the movie was once going to feature “Dukes of Hazzard’s” Johnny Knoxville, model-actress Bridget Moynahan and indie film actress Selma Blair, “The Family Stone” eventually drew the all-star lineup of Keaton, Claire Danes, Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, Dermot Mulroney and, in her first movie role after the conclusion of “Sex and the City,” Sarah Jessica Parker. It will be released Nov. 4.

More good fortune followed. When the film arrived to do exterior photography in Greenwich, Conn., Bezucha and London were hoping for blankets of new snow, only to find the ground nearly bare. But the night before the first day of filming, the skies dumped a foot of powder. “It really felt,” London says, “like God was rewarding Tom for waiting as long as he did.”

THE ONE YOU LOVE TO HATE

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WHEN he first tried making the movie, Bezucha’s script was called “Hating Her.” The her in question is a woman named Meredith (Parker), and it’s easy to see why the Stone family would rather walk on hot coals than share her company.

Meredith takes cellphone calls in the middle of conversations and has to have her BlackBerry pried from her fingers. She wears stiffly tailored clothes and is equally inflexible with people she meets. She can’t edit what she says. And most bothersome of all, she is in love with Everett (Mulroney), the eldest of the family’s five children. “She is unlike anyone I have ever played before,” Parker says. “She’s complicated, she’s intractable and she’s literally rigid. She has an iron rod up her fanny.”

It’s not entirely clear why Everett has fallen for Meredith, though she may complete a facile vision of what success, beauty and affection are supposed to look like. And from the outset, Everett’s family, led by youngest daughter Amy (McAdams), is ready to point out her every shortcoming. Meredith, on the defensive the minute she enters the family’s home, does little to help her own cause.

Parker describes Meredith’s behavior as “an endless, self-fulfilling act of paranoia. “Everything she’s afraid of coming true does. It’s necessary for her to be successful and to feel understood. But she doesn’t know her audience.”

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Bezucha is interested in more than a comic gang-tackle of this unfortunate interloper. “The Family Stone” is ultimately a story about loss and reconciliation, of how a family struggles to remain together as it is broken apart by illness and children leaving the nest.

“It translates truthfully what all of us have been through with our own families,” says Craig T. Nelson, who plays father Kelly Stone. “It isn’t about Meredith. It’s the entrance of someone new into this situation.”

For all of the Stone family’s cattiness, the actor says, “There’s a tremendous amount of love and support in this family.”

A KINSHIP OF STYLE AND SPIRIT

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IN neatly ironed chinos and an immaculate red cashmere sweater, the 41-year-old Bezucha looks more like a J. Crew salesman than a movie director. Indeed, the filmmaker once had his own fledgling clothing business and was pursuing Keaton on Manhattan’s Upper East Side not because he wanted her to star in some movie but because she had exquisite style.

“I felt a kinship of spirit and was determined to meet and work with her. I just wanted her in my clothes,” says Bezucha, who after his clothing line didn’t take off worked for Polo/Ralph Lauren as a store designer.

Although his own father, like the film’s patriarch, is an academic, “The Family Stone” is not autobiographical. “There is no similarity to my family. But these are my people,” Bezucha says. At one point, however, Bezucha’s sister was dating someone the family simply couldn’t stand.

“We just hated him on sight,” the director says. “But we knew if we said anything, she would marry him on the spot. So we bit our tongues for four years.” The couple eventually broke up, with the sister complaining that her family should have spoken up earlier.

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While that experience informed the foundation of “The Family Stone,” much of the rest of its plot hinges on the life of a favorite son.

“Everett is easygoing and privileged,” Bezucha says. “He hasn’t had to want for anything in life. I wanted to explore what life is like for someone who has never had to make a decision. Meredith and Everett look at each other, and they just see the top of the wedding cake rather than the day-to-day reality of marriage.”

Before making his first film, 2000’s weakly reviewed and poorly attended romantic comedy “Big Eden,” Bezucha had given himself five years to be able to support himself as a moviemaker. After “The Family Stone” collapsed in early 2003, he and his new producer, London, had to wait nearly a year for the screenplay’s rights to revert back to them.

Bezucha was hesitant to abandon the cast from his most recent false start, but London advised him that the best way to reboot the project was to clear the decks and start anew. London asked Bezucha for his ideal choice as Sybil. “My fantasy is Diane Keaton, but I don’t know how we’re going to get her,” Bezucha told London. Figuring they had nothing to lose, London sent the script to Keaton’s agent and waited for the phone to ring. Several weeks passed, and Bezucha nearly ran out of money.

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“By late last year, I was running on fumes,” he says. “I was at Ralphs with a bucket of change, cashing it in at one of those machines, to make my rent.”

Then the call came: Keaton was in.

“It was a really easy decision,” the actress says. “It’s kind of rare to come across something like this. It’s just art, well written.”

Soon after, Parker agreed to play Meredith, so confident in Bezucha’s ability that she didn’t even look at his first feature. Aaron Eckhart and Peter Sarsgaard joined the cast too, and it finally looked like “The Family Stone” was a go.

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By cementing the lead roles before shopping the project around town, producer London was trying to avoid the earlier fate that had befallen the film. “That way, [the studio] is saying yes to the movie you see in your head, not the movie they want to turn it into,” London says.

But the holding pattern nearly started all over again. What had been a small indie movie had turned into a small studio movie, and executives couldn’t wrap their heads around the upgrade. Buyers knew that “The Family Stone” had fallen apart twice, and they had trouble imagining how a movie with a troubled history as a $10-million film should now cost $12 million, even with four name actors attached.

“It was the very same argument I heard with ‘Sideways,’ ” London says of his Oscar-winning movie, which numerous studios rejected. Paramount Pictures, where London is based, was in the middle of a management change and couldn’t commit to making “The Family Stone.” Neither could Focus Features nor Fox Searchlight, which had made “Sideways.”

Elizabeth Gabler, the head of Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox that often gravitates toward literate works, then got her hands on the script. Gabler not only wanted to make “The Family Stone” but wanted to increase the filmmakers’ budget to $17 million. “They actually said to us, ‘Let us give you more money,’ ” London said.

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As Bezucha waited to finally get production underway, scheduling issues cost him Sarsgaard as Ben (the part is now played by Luke Wilson) and Eckhart as Everett (he was replaced by Mulroney).

The script was tweaked here and there, and the actors were encouraged to, well, act, adding new lines.

“Because [Bezucha] was so completely grounded in the story,” says Keaton, “he was able in the filming to change things as we went along. He was very open to change, which is unique.”

In the end, Bezucha’s long wait appears to have been worth it, and Fox 2000 hopes the film will receive end-of-the-year awards attention -- a remarkable statement for a movie that once was going to star an alumnus of “Jackass.”

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“I really feel like the lesson I learned at Polo that served me well was that there is always a way,” the director says. “I still can’t believe the studio made it. And I don’t feel like I’ve had to give anything up.”


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