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A part has to be special-ordered

Special to The Times

Just two months before principal photography was meant to commence in Paris on the latest “Rush Hour” sequel, director Brett Ratner came to screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”) and informed him that he wanted a part written into the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker action-comedy franchise for Roman Polanski.

Roman Polanski? The guy who wrote and/or directed “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” three of the bleakest assessments of human nature ever put on film ... in “Rush Hour 3"?

What’s next? Martin Scorsese playing the heavy in the next “Charlie’s Angels” sequel?

“Everyone said, ‘Yeah, right -- Roman Polanski’s gonna be in ‘Rush Hour 3,’ ” Nathanson recalls. “We kind of ignored it.” But Ratner kept pestering him, claiming that Polanski, a friend of the director’s, enjoyed the previous films and really wanted to play a part. So Nathanson drew up several potential characters and scenarios until he and Ratner decided that “the role of a very sadistic French police officer would suit him.”

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The producers and studio executives remained skeptical. “ ‘It’ll never happen,’ ” Nathanson remembers them saying. “Nobody believes that there will be a day when you’re going to walk onto the set and there’s gonna be Roman Polanski, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.”

Well, until a few weeks ago, when the 73-year-old Oscar-winning director (“The Pianist”), film icon and famous fugitive showed up on the Paris set one day -- prepared, curious, and ready to dissect every scene and prop.

Polanski has been in front of the lens before, most notably as the jittery, menacing thug in “Chinatown” who taunts Jack Nicholson with “You are a very nosy fellow, kitty cat ... " before picking the actor’s nose with a switchblade.

Sounds like just the guy you want to play off the crazy high jinks of Mssrs. Chan and Tucker.

“The way ‘Rush Hour’ movies are done, you can’t take yourself too seriously,” says Nathanson, who avoided writing any ironic or self-referential dialogue that would wink at Polanski’s storied personal or professional past. “You have to have a sense of humor about it. There’s really no other way to approach these things as a writer, because it is what it is. Roman had that attitude, which was to just go for it and not worry so much about where he lands because there’s a safety net in being in something that’s really just meant for people to go and have a good time.”

Nathanson, who wrote the second “Rush Hour” film and had a hand in the first, has absorbed all this in mostly stoic fashion, despite the “surreal and odd” sensation he felt at having Polanski, a filmmaking idol, approach him to discuss the lines he had written.

“If you hang around Brett Ratner enough,” he says with a kind of verbal shrug, “odd situations tend to follow.”

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Writer and subject coexist as Arbus

There are times when screenwriter and subject are matched so perfectly that the resulting film becomes more an extension of the writer’s inner landscape than the subject’s outer life.

In her beguiling, enigmatic script for “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” in theaters Friday, playwright and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has, both consciously and subconsciously, brought much of herself to a mostly invented scenario that explores the creative life of one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

“I was not going to take on an authoritative role as the master of Diane Arbus,” says the 42-year-old Wilson, who last collaborated with “Fur” director Steven Shainberg on the delightfully eccentric “Secretary.” “What I wanted to do was to make a portrait of her from my perspective as an artist. This is my interpretation of her birth as an artist.”

Thus the $17-million “Fur,” in design, storytelling and tone, is no conventional biographical film.

Nicole Kidman embodies the winsome housewife and photo stylist as she becomes captivated by Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a mysterious man -- clothed so that only his eyes are visible -- who moves into the Manhattan apartment above her family.

Though Wilson built her fairy tale using many of the basic facts of the photographer’s life as culled from Patricia Bosworth’s “Diane Arbus: A Biography” -- her relationships with her husband, daughters and wealthy parents, her seminal visit to a nudist colony -- Lionel was wholly invented. Afflicted by a rare condition that causes his body to be covered by hair, the charming former circus attraction is more than just a writer’s construct ripe with symbolism. To Wilson, he contains the DNA of Arbus’ real-life inspirations -- not just an amalgam of all her unusual subjects (transvestites, little people, so-called circus freaks), but also a representation of her lover and mentor Marvin Israel, a married painter who pushed and promoted her art.

“I wanted [Lionel] to be her imagination, herself, her muse,” Wilson says. “I wanted her to develop a relationship with the beast inside of her that haunts her. That was very much a part of Diane Arbus, the thrill of fear.”

Bosworth had been trying to get a film made from her book for two decades, and everyone from Diane Keaton to novelist Alice Hoffman (“Practical Magic”), Barbra Streisand, Patricia Knop (“9 1/2 Weeks”), Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”), Bosworth herself and Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”) took a crack at telling Arbus’ story, until producer Ed Pressman brought it to Wilson and Shainberg the week “Secretary” was released in fall 2002.

Wilson wrote her script while suffering through the difficult third trimester of her first pregnancy in a brownstone off Washington Square Park that happened to be right next to a house that Arbus once inhabited. Which meant that she could observe the same things from her windows that Arbus once did. When a struggling artist moved in above her and she could hear him padding around all day, working and taking baths, Lionel was born.

“I developed a sort of intimate relationship with him through sounds,” Wilson says. “Just this companionship through the walls and the ceiling and the pipes.”

Wilson’s career trajectory has propelled her from an artistic childhood in the free-thinking San Francisco of the ‘60s and ‘70s to undergraduate work at Smith College, professorships at Duke and Brown, and screenwriting assignments for Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson. Over the last 20 years, she has displayed her own compulsion for shining a flashlight into the darker corners of women’s psychology in her award-winning plays (“The Erotica Project,” “The Trail of Her Inner Thigh”) and films (“Secretary”).

As an adventurous teenager, Wilson was an avid photographer very much influenced by Arbus, who killed herself in 1971. In an uncanny parallel, when Wilson was 16 she was photographing some gay female friends as they were naked and decided to disrobe herself to more fully engage the artisic process. “It wasn’t salaious,” she says. “It was naive and sweet. I grew up in the world of ‘Last Tango in Paris,’ of ‘Hair.’ I grew up in a world that already housed [Arbus’] imagination.”

This episode mirrors Arbus’ own famous foray into a nudist colony in 1958 to photograph the residents. “Fur” is bookended by the significance of this moment in the artist’s evolution.

“For Diane Arbus -- and for myself -- art was intimately connected with eroticism, with trespassing, with romantic relationships, with the Other,” Wilson says.

“And that seemed absolutely clear that that’s the way it was going to have to go with this movie.”

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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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