From beyond the grave, a new Faulkner

Special to The Times

You've heard of Southern Gothic? Well, how does "William Faulkner's Nosferatu" grab ya?

As the exclusive representative of the William Faulkner Literary Estate, producer Lee Caplin ("Ali") has had access to the vaunted Mississippi writer's letters, sketches, notes and other literary works for years. So when Jill Faulkner Summers, the novelist's daughter, found a manuscript seven years ago in the piles of material her father left behind when he died in 1962, she passed it on to Caplin. He was stunned by what she'd found: Faulkner's only un-produced, feature-length screenplay.

But here's the kicker: Faulkner, the Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning writer of "As I Lay Dying," "Light in August," and "Absalom! Absalom!," had harvested his astonishing talent to write

Faulkner had a legendarily complicated relationship with Hollywood, which he initially attempted to exploit for easy money before becoming so annoyed that he ultimately retreated to Mississippi. His distaste was well-earned: His first produced screenplay involved being asked by Irving Thalberg to transform his all-male World War I movie "Turn About" into a Joan Crawford vehicle called "Today We Live." (For a humorous snapshot of Faulkner's Hollywood years, see John Mahoney's wickedly playful homage as W.P. Mayhew, the Southern novelist turned agonized and alcohol-benumbed screenwriter in the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink.")

Beginning in 1932, and intermittently over the next 13 years, Faulkner was a contract writer at MGM, Fox and Warner Bros. who mainly wrote screenplays for good friend and drinking buddy Howard Hawks. Their best and most notable collaborations are Faulkner's adaptations of Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not" and Raymond Chandler's noir classic "The Big Sleep."

In the midst of all this, Faulkner apparently spun out a vampire saga set in an anonymous Eastern European location. Caplin plans to relocate the story to the Deep South and has a high-end computer-graphics firm on the hook to dress it up with modern effects.

Hollywood remains interested in Faulkner's own novels, with Caplin producing a forthcoming adaptation of "The Sound and the Fury" and Oprah Winfrey seeking to make "Light in August." Caplin is also trying to find a writer who can make a "David Lynch-style movie" out of Faulkner's 1935 short story "The Golden Land," a dirty fable about a wayward Hollywood family that only someone truly disgusted with the Tinseltown landscape could write. Though Caplin has considered many screenwriters, no one has yet nailed how to approach adapting a story he calls " 'American Beauty' on steroids."

His Starbucks-to-stardom story

Two years ago, Craig Cox was making around seven bucks an hour. Three weeks ago, he got a raise to somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars a year.

As the latest example of the hot new trend of developing screenplay material with an actor or director (see "You, Me and Dupree" and "The Break-Up"), Craig, 27, and his brother Jeff, 30, created a broad comedy pitch about the first Olympics in ancient Greece with director Peter Segal ("50 First Dates," "The Longest Yard"). Segal recently sent the eight-page treatment to every studio in town, expecting interested parties to bring them in to pitch the movie in person.

As it turned out, that wasn't necessary.

The treatment itself drew immediate interest from Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. and sparked a bidding war, with Universal paying in the high six figures for the script. The brothers will get a bonus if the film gets made, which will push their total over $1 million. Mary Parent and Scott Stuber are producing with Segal attached to direct and produce.

Craig Cox had been working in a Beverly Hills Starbucks when he and his brother sold their first comedy spec, "Blades of Glory," to Paramount for low-mid six figures. Since the Cox brothers didn't get paid for a few months, rival agents could still find Craig at work and plunk down business cards while picking up their skim lattes (the Coxes ended up with Barbara Dreyfus at UTA).

Due out in 2007, "Blades" stars Will Ferrell and Jon Heder as rival Olympic figure skaters who, after getting booted from the sport, then exploit an obscure loophole to regain entry as a pairs team. Though John Altschuler and David Krinsky (TV's "King of the Hill") did a rewrite on "Blades," the Cox brothers have been on the set doing last-minute rewrites for additional second-unit footage as it completes filming and prepares for its first test screenings.

'Inside' work, and an inside job

Russell Gewirtz has burglary on the brain. As of last week, the 41-year-old screenwriter was working on breaking the stories (industry-speak for developing the story outlines) for two very different heist movies: a potential sequel to his first script, "Inside Man," and an untitled thriller starring Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock as Trump Tower janitors who scheme to rip off its luxury tenants.

Bill Collage and Adam Cooper ("New York Minute," "Accepted") wrote the first draft of the Trump project, from an original Murphy idea. But when Imagine Entertainment came to Gewirtz for a rewrite, he pitched a take in which an unsuccessful, oh-so-last-millennium high-tech heist is pointedly juxtaposed against the decidedly low-tech but no less artful plot of a couple of blue-collar guys with much more to gain and more believable motives. It's "a bit lighter than 'Inside Man' while still aiming to hit those clever plot twists," says the Long Island native.

Brett Ratner ("X-Men: The Last Stand") is attached to direct the film in March (with the Donald's unavoidable participation), when all the principals next have a free window.

Gewirtz's "Inside Man," which starred Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen, turned out to be Spike Lee's biggest hit. After earning $184 million worldwide this year, a sequel seemed an inevitability -- especially when Gewirtz informed everyone involved that he already had an idea for a continuation of the story that included the return of several of the main characters.

Originally slated for Imagine's Ron Howard, who at one point had worked on a rewrite with Gewirtz until Russell Crowe became available to do "Cinderella Man," "Inside Man" later passed into the hands of writer-director Menno Meyjes ("Max," co-writer of "The Siege"), who drastically changed the script over 18 months. The project had effectively stalled, and Gewirtz shelved his sequel idea, which would no longer work given the shape of the Meyjes rewrite.

But in one of those lucky Hollywood twists of fate, Lee independently happened to read Gewirtz's earlier script the day before a meeting with Imagine producer Brian Grazer, whom he spontaneously pitched on reviving the project by reverting to the Gewirtz-Howard version.

Two weeks ago, Lee announced that he is considering "Inside Man 2" for his next directing project. Also on Lee's short list is the supernatural thriller "Selling Time," about a man given the opportunity to trade years off the end of his life for a chance to change his worst days, which the director has recently rewritten. For the last five years, the Fox project has floated through different hands, but this summer it attracted the attention of new United Artists savior Tom Cruise, who has had conversations with Lee about working on it together.

"The fact that we've reached the point of wanting a sequel [to 'Inside Man'] is a victory," says Gewirtz, given the original screenplay's near-death experience. "And the fact that I already had one ready to go makes it even sweeter for me."

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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