The big name gets distracted

Special to The Times

J. Michael Straczynski’s “Changeling” is one of those blessed and doomed screenplays that periodically floats around Hollywood: a truly gripping read that actors and directors respond to with passion but that nonetheless has a hard time getting made. For a screenwriter, this can be an excruciating reality that only gets more painful when an A-list director is among those flirting with it.

So it has gone with Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), who has long been interested in making “Changeling” but who recently committed to direct the feature version of Peter Morgan’s political play “Frost/Nixon,” which has drawn raves since its London premiere and which will be moving to Broadway in the spring. Morgan, who may be a major Oscar contender this year for “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland,” will adapt his own play.

(Straczynski’s probably not the only one disappointed. After watching Howard go off and make three quarters of a billion dollars with Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s mega-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” Universal Pictures, to whom Howard owes his next film, had been hoping to steer the director toward similarly commercial fare.)


At one point Howard was smitten enough with “Changeling” to meet with Straczynski, a longtime TV writer (“Babylon 5,” “Murder, She Wrote”) eager to have his first produced feature. Says Straczynski: “There are all kinds of circumstances that can affect whether or not something goes forward.... I’ve gotten very Zen about the whole thing.”

Set in 1928 Los Angeles, “Changeling” is a psychological thriller that details the real-life account of a single mother whose 9-year-old son disappears. When he turns up four months later, she becomes convinced that the police have returned the wrong boy, even as everyone around her, including City Hall, tries to persuade her otherwise.

Straczynski scatters throughout the script’s pages actual newspaper clippings from the various news conferences, developments and trials as they were reported at the time (the script’s subtitle is “A True Story”), and the narrative is built around a lead character who slowly, intensely teeters toward a form of madness. It’s the kind of rare, weighty female role that has attracted Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon and likely every other A-list actress in Hollywood. But “Changeling” is not exactly “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”; it’s a brooding downer, in the mold of Howard’s “The Missing,” which made only $27 million in theaters.

But what’s interesting is that Howard’s ultimate choice -- an examination of the political and personal context of the famous 1977 “confessional” TV interviews between disgraced former President Richard Nixon and British talk-show host David Frost -- is no surer a box-office bet than “Changeling” would be. Something about the play’s content, which could be described as a character-driven battle between the press and the evasions of powerful men, clearly resonated with the director. As for Straczynski’s script, should Howard eventually decide to let it go (after “Frost/Nixon,” he is set to helm “Angels & Demons,” Brown’s precursor to “The Da Vinci Code,” once again adapted by Goldsman), surely there will be other suitors.

Real life can be such a drama

When Jeremy Brock sat down six years ago to start work on his semiautobiographical screenplay “Driving Lessons,” he was unaware that not only was he crafting a coming-of-age film inspired by a seminal period in his life, he was also in the process of creating a very personal, public act of revenge.

“I don’t like to think that, because it feels too tough,” says Brock (“Mrs. Brown” and co-writer of “The Last King of Scotland”), whose directorial debut features Laura Linney as a “pretty scary” version of the 47-year-old writer-director’s mother. “But I have to admit that that’s there too.... It has an element of needing to say: ‘This is what you did. You did this to me.’ ”

In “Driving Lessons,” which opens Friday, Brock’s on-screen alter ego is Ben (Rupert Grint), a shy, small-town English boy who in his 17th summer is wrenched between two very imposing and contradictory forces: Evie (Julie Walters), a legendary, eccentric actress three times his age with whom he forms an affectionate bond, and his devout, controlling mother, who disapproves of Ben’s newfound attachment and rebellion.

Navigating the contours of one’s own history is always tricky for an artist, and Brock is not the first filmmaker to mine personal trauma for both comedic and dramatic catharsis -- Tamara Jenkins’ “Slums of Beverly Hills” and Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” are two effective examples of this, while Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” may be viewed as a cautionary tale of over-romanticization.

Though Brock decided to build his film’s narrative around a fictional road trip, the central relationships and details are torn very much from the truth of his past. In the early ‘80s, Brock developed a friendship with Peggy Ashcroft, an iconic actress whose career stretched back to Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps.” To get away from his oppressive mother, Brock moved into Ashcroft’s basement for several months and did housecleaning.

Brock wanted to be sure that he did not soften the edges of his domineering, evangelical mother (his father was a local vicar), who among other things made the young Brock complicit in an affair she was carrying on.

“I wanted to not flinch from that. It is pretty sharp-edged.” Just the same, though both his parents are still alive, Brock’s mother is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, and Brock admits he “would not have written the movie had she been alive to it.”

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