Revealing a piece of his soul

Special to The Times

Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner says his goal in life is to have adventures. And adventures he has had -- artistic adventures, adventures of conscience, adventures of the heart. Many of these excursions have taken him to glorious creative meadows, and a few have led him down into the abyss.

In the 1980s, Nyswaner wrote the screenplays for "Mrs. Soffel," "Love Hurts" and his directorial debut, "The Prince of Pennsylvania," and he reached a career peak in 1993 with his Oscar-nominated script for "Philadelphia," the first major film to address AIDS and homophobia. With his adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel "The Painted Veil" opening today, Nyswaner returns to the big screen for his first feature credit after 13 years of wandering a professional and personal wilderness.

"Veil" stars Edward Norton and Naomi Watts as Walter and Kitty Fane, an unhappily married English couple who move to rural China under British imperialism in 1925 to fight a cholera epidemic and their disgust for each other. "A love story in reverse," as Nyswaner recalls director John Curran ("We Don't Live Here Anymore") describing it, the screenplay has received an Independent Spirit Award nomination and the National Board of Review award for adapted screenplay, a satisfying payoff to a frequently abandoned project.

"I think I was a junior in high school ... ," Nyswaner jokes of his initial involvement in the movie, when he and producer Sara Colleton began pitching the book 10 years ago. "There were many times when I completely gave up."

After his first draft, in September 1997, Nyswaner figures he wrote at least 35 drafts, many of them in significantly different directions, for a variety of temporary producers, directors, actors and financiers who were never all available to make the film.

"It's my job to make whoever the current team is happy," says Nyswaner, who did several free drafts over the years under Norton's committed guidance. "But in doing those notes and trying to keep everybody on board, it's my job to hold on to the soul of the project: that two people find themselves and love and forgiveness by undergoing this incredibly dramatic and exotic adventure."

Holding on to his own soul became a struggle in the years between "Philadelphia" and "Veil." During that time, Nyswaner was still working: He wrote a play, scripted the Peabody Award-winning movie "Soldier's Girl" for Showtime, wrote two TV projects and worked on stalled feature projects, such as "A Trial by Jury" for Sam Raimi, which got back-burnered when "Spider-Man" opened to $115 million.

But more devastatingly, he also had a "psychological and substance-abuse crash and burn" when he fell in love with a gigolo, "which is a nice word for what he was," and became addicted to drugs. In 2004, Nyswaner published a wry memoir called "Blue Days, Black Nights" that described that difficult two-year period of his life. (He's been sober many years.)

"Not unlike the characters in 'The Painted Veil,' I was deluded," Nyswaner says. "I was falling in love with something that wasn't true. That somehow this person, who made his living by seducing people, would miraculously fall in love with me and save me. If you look at 'The Painted Veil,' [the British] are trying to make China something that it isn't, and Walter has this delusion of who Kitty is and that's what he falls in love with. So it's a process that I'm very much familiar with."

This point was heartbreakingly realized for Nyswaner when, after his lover died, he tried to make arrangements to bury him next to the man's parents and discovered that everything he had told Nyswaner was a fabrication -- even his name.

But these risks of the heart have also led Nyswaner to some of the most fulfilling aspects of his life and career. After the success of "Philadelphia," he spent years speaking at churches and colleges around the country about HIV/AIDS and gay civil rights. And that activist streak is breaking through into his screenwriting again.

Nyswaner is working on the first draft of a project he says he was "born to write," called "Dover," about the evolution/intelligent design trial that was decided in Dover, Pa., a year ago today. He has also co-written with Rudy Joffroy a screenplay for a Mexican-financed film called "The Devil's Highway" that details the true story of 24 Mexican workers who crossed the border illegally near Yuma, Ariz., in 2001 and were nearly wiped out after getting lost in the desert.

"That's who I am," Nyswaner says of taking on controversial subjects. "I describe myself as a provocateur, in my life and in my work. Otherwise, what's the point?"

He's making a list for the holidays

In a town of industry players so lazy and/or addle-brained that they have to hire personal shoppers, Franklin Leonard should get a star on the Walk of Fame. Or at least a reserved parking space at Orso. Leonard has just compiled his second annual Black List of the year's "most liked" screenplays, and he slipped it into Hollywood's e-mail in-boxes right before the holidays so they'd know what to read in the hot tubs of Aspen.

The Black List began, as most things do in Hollywood, with self-interest. Last fall, Leonard, a creative executive at Appian Way, Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, informally surveyed people he trusted about what their favorite reads had been so he would know which scripts to take over vacation. The anonymous document circulated around town. Writers got meetings off their appearance on the list. And agents and managers started coming to him with scripts he should "keep in mind for next year."

Leonard was as surprised as anyone by the life it took on.

When previous insider lists of this type have circulated, they've generally focused on what people thought were the best unproduced screenplays, so they were great novelty reading tainted by the presumption that they were unproduced for a reason. But this new Black List (as opposed to the despicable HUAC-inspired variety) has taken off, and writers have benefited greatly.

This year's list, released last week, contains the titles of 87 screenplays, their writers and the writers' agents, "compiled from the suggestions of over 90 film executives and high-level assistants, each of whom contributed the names of up to ten of their favorite scripts that were written in or are somehow uniquely associated with 2006 and will not be released in theaters during this calendar year," as Leonard's cover sheet proclaims. "THE BLACK LIST is not a 'best of' list. It is, at best, a 'most liked' list."

Here are the three screenplays from the 2006 Black List:

(1) "The Brigands of Rattleborge," by S. Craig Zahler, which netted 30 mentions. An ultra-violent western with touches of black comedy, "Brigands" has been stirring up buzz since the summer and even earned the writer a call from fan Steven Spielberg. Director Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo") has been circling the Warner Bros. project for months.

(2) "State of Play," by Matt Carnahan, with 23 mentions. An adaptation of the popular 2003 British miniseries written by Paul Abbott about the intersection of politics and journalism in the wake of two murders, "Play" has long been one of Universal's hottest scripts and has Brad Pitt attached to star.

(3) "Rendition," by Kelley Sane, with 19 mentions. This political thriller is set up at New Line with Jake Gyllenhaal as a CIA operative in the Middle East and Reese Witherspoon as an American woman looking for her kidnapped husband. It explores the ramifications of the practice of extraordinary rendition in a story line that echoes the real-life case of Syrian-born Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was abducted by American officials and shipped to Syria in 2002, where he says he was tortured for months before being released uncharged.

Several talented writers landed two screenplays on the list: Carnahan ("State of Play" and "Lions for Lambs"), Caleb Kane ("These City Walls" and "Untitled Richard Pryor"), Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths"), Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka ("Hairstyles of the Damned" and "Who the Hell Is Sanjay Patel"), Ned Benson ("In Defiance of Gravity" and "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby") and Allan Loeb ("A Little Game Without Consequence" and "Men").

A fascinating and unexpected aspect of the list is its reflection of the hierarchy among the agencies, at least in terms of screenwriters: CAA has 21 scripts on the list, UTA has 18 1/2 (one is co-written by a writer from another agency), William Morris has 17, Endeavor has 9 1/2 , ICM has seven.

Despite its humble beginnings, and a growing status that will surely lead to more aggressive campaigning for next year, Leonard is pleased by the unintended consequences for those most marginalized of Hollywood craftsmen.

"I think that writers are very much undervalued in Hollywood," Leonard says. "So I love the idea that if assistants, junior development executives, senior executives at a studio or a studio president take a look at this list and see that 18 people have recommended a script, maybe they'll take the time to read it. If you can heighten the buzz around these writers, maybe they'll start to be less undervalued. That's the hope anyway. But that was never the initial intention; it was really just about finding more good stuff for me to read."

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. For tips and comments, e-mail fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

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