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A mischievous road

Special to The Times

If ever a movie begged for the resurrection of the drive-in, “Drive-Away Dykes” is it. A lesbian road-trip action sex comedy penned by writer-producer Ethan Coen (“Fargo”) and his wife, film editor Tricia Cooke, “Drive-Away” promises all the laughs, thrills and mischief of the old double-bill sexploitation cinema. “Women on the road. All kinds of action,” deadpans the tagline.

I’m there.

When Marion, a skirt-chasing party girl, gets kicked out after her cop girlfriend finds her in bed with another woman, she convinces her buttoned-down friend Jamie to let her come along on a get-away-for-a-few-days drive-away car assignment from Philadelphia to Miami. Packed along for the ride are Jamie’s crush on Marion, Marion’s unrelenting desire to cruise every lesbian bar on the eastern seaboard, and -- since this is Coen territory -- a severed head in a hatbox, a mystery briefcase full of plaster phalluses, a melange of angry pursuers, an evil senator, a bitter ex-girlfriend and loads of hot boyless sex.

“The sensibility is exploitive but innocent,” says Coen, who said he was aiming for the tone of the early-'70s exploitation romps he saw as a teenager, only with more sincerity.

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“The way that Ethan so perfectly put it is that it’s a ‘naughty comedy,’ ” says Allison Anders (“Sugar Town”), who is attached to direct the script and is particularly eager to film sequences like the girls’ encounter with a women’s soccer team at a basement party. “It’s definitely sexy but it’s also fun in its naughtiness. It is a love story too, ultimately.”

From “Gas Food Lodging” to her segment of “Four Rooms” and the agonizingly personal “Things Behind the Sun,” Anders has often navigated nudity and sex scenes, and she alludes to a political climate that’s made the movie difficult to get produced. But she’s hoping to move “Drive-Away” into production this year, and the filmmakers and producers have been looking at “absolutely everybody” to find the right leads, including daring actors like Selma Blair and Holly Hunter, who have been attached at various times.

“These girls have to be hot, smart, brave and funny,” Anders says with a chuckle. “It’s really bold material in a lot of ways.”

Coen, with brother Joel, is of course half of the idiosyncratic filmmaking partnership that so deliciously twisted genre convention in screenplays like “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski,” and Cooke has worked as an editor on most of their movies since “Miller’s Crossing.” Years ago, someone mentioned the potential title to her and inspiration struck.

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“We were both taken with the title and, as with old exploitation films, it all derived from that,” Coen says. “We figured, ‘All right, what kind of movie has this title?’ ”

The result was their first screenplay collaboration (they apparently enjoyed it; they’ve since collaborated on other scripts), which they churned out as a “spare time kind of thing” around other projects.

Anders, Coen and Cooke have been friends since 1995, when they met on a plane to China for a Sundance function, and Anders’ daughter was Coen and Cooke’s nanny for many years. In Anders’ recollection, before they had written “Drive-Away,” Cooke and Coen pitched the black comedy to her in hilariously deadpan fashion during a Christmas vacation in San Francisco a few years ago and then asked Anders to direct it.

“I was just so immediately into it,” says Anders, who got the finished script about a year ago. “I could see why it would be a great fit, them and me -- there are a lot of great women characters in it. It’s really a girl buddy movie, from a female point of view, but it’s also very Russ Meyer-esque, with that same kind of innocence. The way that Ethan and Tricia always saw it was like a B movie of the past. We gotta bring back drive-ins.”

Paramount’s transition leaves some blue

Scenes from “Reservoir Dogs” rarely come to mind when imagining executive meetings during a studio restructuring, and no one is likely to confuse Gail Berman with the late, cantankerous character actor Lawrence Tierney. But when Berman came on board as Paramount’s new president of production and reorganized the development staff into color-coded executive teams, surely some smart aleck must have been tempted to ask, “Why am I Mr. Pink?”

Soon after her arrival in May 2005 -- Berman was hired by Paramount Pictures Chairman and Chief Executive Brad Grey to oversee creative operations in the wake of previous studio chief Sherry Lansing’s retirement -- the former president of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting held a daylong retreat at the Hotel Bel-Air for the entire development staff. In an effort to bring greater accountability to both producers and executives on the lot, Berman, with her production lieutenants Alli Shearmur and Brad Weston, constructed two- and three-person teams out of her executives and assigned the many producers and production companies with deals at the studio to a specific team.

Each team had a junior creative executive, a mid-level VP and a senior VP, and was designated a color -- green, blue, brown and yellow. In an echo of an elementary school Field Day, she also passed out color-coordinated V-neck T-shirts with the Paramount logo to reinforce the idea that it was no longer business as usual.

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The teams developed the material internally until the team leader reported to Shearmur and Weston, before funneling it up to Berman. (The recently purchased DreamWorks retains its own hierarchy.)

After a tumultuous era at best, Paramount on Tuesday pulled the plug on its grand development experiment.

Weston said that the color-coded system was originally devised to help get control over the unwieldy volume of producer deals -- some 40 of them -- that they inherited from the previous regime, many of which had unknown value. “We didn’t know who the producers were, we didn’t know each other, and we didn’t know who was responsible for any of the projects,” Weston said. “So this was just an internal organizational tool for us to really have the executives take responsibility for some of the producers and try to put some organization to the projects.”

It was an organizational tool that turned out to have some serious drawbacks.

When I first heard about the Paramount color/team system from a disgruntled writer, I was both skeptical and curious, and over the last few months I’ve been asking agents, writers, managers and producers their thoughts on whether the anomalous system is any better or worse than the other studios’ traditional approaches. Responses varied from scorn -- “silly” or “ridiculous” -- to equivocation to measured praise for at least the theories behind it.

The main complaint seemed to be that many managers, agents and producers were chafing at the forced bonds this created given that they like to be in control of whom they place certain material with, based on mutual tastes and passion, previous relationships and trust. For these people, the parameters of each project beg for different sensibilities and being “hogtied” to one set of executives each time out was stifling. They value the freedom of packaging their clients’ material with the best, most simpatico executives on the block. Additionally, Berman’s restructuring broke up a lot of effective producer-executive-writer creative partnerships, and in an industry that works, if it works at all, primarily on relationships, the “straitjackets” that replaced them were anathema.

Lynda Obst (“The Siege,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) is a self-described traditionalist. She has had a production deal at Paramount for five years, and initially hated the new system because “you can’t pick and choose your executive with your project,” she said. “From a producer’s point of view you always want to be able to cherry-pick your executive.”

For instance, a producer may have wanted to take an action script to one executive who’s strong in the genre, but not a comedy script. Under the color/team system, the producer had to go to this same person regardless of content compatibility. Several writer-producers claim that this disempowered the bold executive from going to bat for projects they felt passionate about. One can imagine the development execs had similar complaints because they are more restricted in choosing projects and partners.

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One manager expressed surprise that Grey, a former talent manager, supported such a system since his previous position required him to be as strategic as possible in pairing up his clients with producers and executives. On the other hand, one of the pluses expressed by several people is that it cut down on the confusion about whom they had to deal with. They knew who was responsible for each project and the team delivered a consensus to the writer or producer.

“It’s grown on me in some ways,” admitted Obst, who believes the new system gave her more personal oversight and support for her projects. “Not that I necessarily would be brokenhearted by its absence, but my team [the yellow team] is a great one. They’re devoted to my projects in a way that wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a team system, because their fortunes are entwined in mine, and they are really committed to my slate.”

In the traditional system, Obst adds, so many executives move from project to project that “if the project loses its momentum no one has responsibility for it. [The team system] is a more personal attachment.”

Of course, there are exceptions to everything, and certain producers, writers and executives -- whether because of talent, charm or track record -- had a much easier time moving their projects forward.

The bottom line for many of the people with whom I spoke is that at the end of the day, it didn’t really affect how they pitched their clients or the ultimate quality of the finished products, though one agent did describe the process of getting writers hired onto projects at Paramount as “glacial.”

On the grand scale, the collective judgment is that Paramount’s color-coded development system was no better or worse than any other studio’s. Weston said that now that the volume of producing deals has been whittled down, Paramount is ready to abandon the system, a decision Weston said was made with Berman’s OK over the holiday break.

“It was a little bit of a handicap on some level,” he admitted. “We always knew the system had some flaws. We just needed it for a short period of time to help us get organized. It worked and helped us get streamlined, and as we’ve matured as a studio and gotten to know each other and the people on the lot, there was just no need for this anymore.”

Either way, there are enough ruts endemic to the Hollywood system as a whole that ultimately Paramount is governed by the same overriding and immutable laws by which every studio lives and dies. “Development is chaotic everywhere,” as Obst puts it. “Individual executives are gifted.”

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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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