Iraq outside the greenlight zone
NEW YORK -- In the last two years, Jody Hotchkiss, a literary agent specializing in book-to-film deals, has had high hopes for two titles focusing on the Iraq war. Both books were vivid and highly cinematic, he said. He pitched them to producers.
Filmmakers wouldn’t touch “The Deserter’s Tale,” fearing box office poison in the true story of a soldier who said he was horrified by U.S. atrocities and fled to Canada. But Johnny Depp acquired the rights to “The Bomb in My Garden,” about an Iraqi scientist who tried to develop an atomic bomb for Saddam Hussein, then turned himself and his research in to U.S. officials. The only hitch: Producers changed the focus, beefing up the role of the American journalist who helped the bomb maker escape Baghdad. “Nobody wants to see a film about an Iraqi nuclear scientist,” a source close to the deal explained.
When studios adapt books into films, there is always a risk: No matter how compelling a literary property may be, producers must find financing, create a high-quality film and succeed at the box office. Yet all these hurdles loom even larger when it comes to adapting for the screen books about the Iraq war -- and there are already many, including more than 40 being published just this fall.
Even if they are opposed to the conflict, many Hollywood producers are nervous about bankrolling films on the war at a time when the national mood is so volatile. (“The Deserter’s Tale” finally found a home -- with a Canadian film production company.) And although there is a wave of Iraq films on the horizon, the disappointing performance of several recent movies, including “In the Valley of Ellah” and “Rendition,” only underscores the skittishness about which books to option, if any.
It was a different story two years ago. Filmmakers were rushing to buy Iraq-themed literary properties at a time when national sentiment against the war seemed to be hardening. But then the book-buying fever died down, as an early exit strategy proved elusive and no clear political consensus emerged.
“Hollywood has trouble keeping up with the shifting political climate and an election cycle in this country that never seems to end,” said veteran producer Lynda Obst. “So the big question becomes which film adaptations can survive the long time it takes to make a movie, and hold the interest of directors and movie stars, and also survive the interest of a fickle movie audience.”
When the first significant films about the Vietnam War began appearing, the conflict had been over for several years. But when it comes to Iraq, “there’s no Hollywood ending in sight,” said Jib Polhemus, president of Simon West Productions, which developed Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down,” about 1993 events in Somalia, with Jerry Bruckheimer, and is now developing “Thunder Run,” a book about the Baghdad invasion by Los Angeles Times reporter David Zucchino. Polhemus acknowledged that uncertainties about Iraq were a factor, saying, “It’s hard to make a definitive political statement about the war because it’s ever-evolving.”
Even if you knew the outcome, there’s no guarantee that people will pay money to see a film about the war. Indeed, after four years of pounding media coverage, many Americans may not want to see a gut-wrenching story about Iraq when they seek entertainment at the movies, said Amy Schiffman, a literary agent with the Gersh Agency, who brokered the film rights for Zucchino’s title. “When you buy a book for film, you roll the dice,” she noted. “But now, adapting books about Iraq for the movies seems a special kind of gamble.”
Nonetheless, Hollywood is pushing forward on several Iraq book projects: Director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon are teaming up on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.” Others include “The Long Road Home” by Martha Raddatz, “Curveball” by Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin, “A Journal for Jordan” by Dana Canedy and “Last One In” by Nicholas Kulish.
David Simon, who created “The Wire” and “The Corner” for HBO, is adapting Evan Wright’s “Generation Kill,” an account of a group of U.S. troops during the first weeks of the Iraq invasion, for HBO. But he said the book on which his seven-part series is based might never have been successfully pitched to studios.
Wright’s tale offers a harshly realistic view of soldiers in combat -- their individual heroism but also the damage they do to Iraqi civilians. Simon noted: “A studio executive might well say, ‘These soldiers are sitting around an awful lot. There’s not enough action, there’s not enough ‘Black Hawk Down.’ Who gets killed in the story?”
Hotchkiss had good news for author Kurt Pitzer two years ago, soon after he and Mahdi Obeidi, Hussein’s former nuclear scientist, co-wrote “The Bomb in My Garden.”
He told their literary agent, Alice Martell, that the book appeared to be a good fit for Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil; they were looking for an Iraq film that could tackle more complex issues. Indeed, the book was a cautionary tale about nuclear proliferation. But the story had to be expanded beyond Obeidi’s account and focus on Pitzer’s efforts to help the scientist and his family flee Baghdad.
“I was asked to write about 30 additional pages of material telling that story, which doesn’t figure much in the book until the very end,” Pitzer said. “Before we even met with people in Los Angeles, I had five or six very long phone calls with them, telling the story to them in advance. And I could tell that drama captivated them.”
Those chats led to a meeting with Depp in his West Hollywood office, which also included Graham King, president and chief executive of Initial Entertainment (“The Departed,” “The Aviator,” “Traffic”), who acquired the rights for Depp’s production company; Depp’s sister, Christi Dembrowski, president of their production company; plus the authors and Warner Bros. officials, Pitzer said.
“When you’re in a room where Johnny Depp is talking to a nuclear scientist, it’s one of those days you don’t forget,” Pitzer said. “Both he and King asked good questions, and it’s not that they came out saying, ‘We love the story because there’s an American in it.’ To a person in that room, they were all concerned about nuclear proliferation, and they wanted the movie to hit all the right points.”
Despite questions still hovering over the project -- a director has yet to be assigned -- Pitzer and Obeidi have powerful players in their corner. For Joshua Key, author of “The Deserter’s Tale,” the question was whether anybody would turn his story into a movie.
The book, co-written with Lawrence Hill, got favorable reviews earlier this year, and publisher Morgan Entrekin believed it would strike a chord. Opposition to the war was still building, he said, and Key’s memoir -- told in spare language and quick scenes -- seemed to lend itself easily to a film adaptation.
Denise Bukowski, Key’s literary agent, said Key’s book received heavy attention from the international press. It didn’t blame Iraq atrocities on a bunch of bad apples but on systemic abuses by the U.S. military. Moreover, the author came across as a decent, patriotic kid from Oklahoma who felt betrayed by his own country. “But then [Hotchkiss] hit a brick wall in Hollywood,” Bukowski said.
Hotchkiss heard comments that Key’s book “just wasn’t right” for one studio or another. He was told that the subject was too volatile, that people supported the troops and could not sympathize with a deserter.
Enter Eric Jordan, an independent Canadian filmmaker. His company, the Film Works, produced “Beowulf and Grendel,” and he was eager to option Key’s book. He said the tale had particular resonance for Canada, which has a long tradition of providing refuge and asylum for political refugees.
“I didn’t set out to make a pro-Iraq war movie or an anti-Iraq war movie,” Jordan said. “I wanted to make a movie about people under pressure, real people, and the fact that this is a complex world.
“Just imagine what this kid went through, never dreaming he’d desert the U.S. Army. That’s a great book -- and a great movie.”