Heavy metal for sequel

Special to The Times

Well, DreamWorks and Paramount are finally moving forward with their inevitable "Transformers" sequel, and they've done it by putting an enormous down payment on a unique, blockbuster screenwriting crew. In a deal that could ultimately pay out more than $8 million, the studios have hired Ehren Kruger ("The Ring," "Scream 3") to write the film's screenplay with original "Transformers" scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, whose four credited films have produced $1.4 billion in worldwide box office.

DreamWorks' willingness to agree to a combined team of A-listers, especially at such lofty rates, speaks to the studio's faith in the writers' ability to deliver (it also, one insider notes, effectively discourages the studio from spending more money to hire someone to rewrite their work).

Producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and DreamWorks executives had been inviting writers to propose takes on the sequel as early as May, two months before the first film's Independence Day opening. The studio has been looking at the "Transformers" property as an extended saga, with an expansive mythology built into at least two more films.

But Kurtzman and Orci have been jammed with high-profile writing and producing assignments ("Star Trek," "Eagle Eye") and originally passed on writing the sequel to avoid overextending themselves. With returning director Michael Bay looking to keep them involved and no killer pitches forthcoming, last month the studio finally persuaded them by suggesting they team with another writer (for the second film only; Bay has not committed to a third either.)

As producers, Kurtzman and Orci had hired Kruger to pen another DreamWorks project, "Nightlife," and apparently enjoyed the relationship enough to collaborate with him as writers. (Kruger had recently adapted Stephen King's "The Talisman" for Steven Spielberg, a "Transformers" executive producer.)

Even with the added partner, the logistics should prove complicated. The new "Star Trek," which Kurtzman and Orci are producing and writing for Paramount, and "Eagle Eye," which they're producing for DreamWorks, start shooting on the same day next month. And "Fringe," the sci-fi series Kurtzman and Orci sold to Fox TV last week, starts shooting by year's end.

So Kurtzman and Orci will somehow be writing their part of the "Transformers" script while bouncing around three sets. (At least "Fringe" is co-written and co-executive-produced by "Trek" director J.J. Abrams, so lunch breaks on the "Trek" set should prove productive.)

No deadline has been set for the screenplay, though the film does have a release date: June 26, 2009. So the hiring of several writers was less about trying to complete a script before the potential Writers Guild walkout on Nov. 1 than about having access to numerous voices to address the inevitable changes as this behemoth progresses through its years-long development and production process.

Just the same, the three writers are already pooling their ideas to nail down the detailed story line while Bay has begun pulling together some digital pre-visualization robot designs that didn't make it into the first film. An added benefit lost on no one is that with a CGI-heavy film like this, the preliminary work provides an effective cushion if the writers (or directors and actors next summer) do strike -- effects crews can work ahead and compile action sequences during any stoppage.

'Stooges' on hook?

It's enough to make a guy say, nyaaah-aaahh-aahh. . .

With the Farrelly brothers' latest comedy "The Heartbreak Kid" grossing a mere $14 million over the weekend (actually their biggest opening since "Shallow Hal" in 2001, but still a disappointment), their next potential project, "The Three Stooges," may have just taken a mallet to the noggin.

For the last few years, the Farrellys have been trying to get traction on a feature-length update of the comedy trio's 1930s shorts. C3 Entertainment Inc., which holds the licensing rights to the Stooges brand, sold the feature rights to Warner Bros. in March 2001 for the Farrellys to write and produce the movie.

Brothers Peter and Bobby wrote the screenplay with their childhood friend Michael Cerrone, but the project never came together, and Warner Bros. let the rights lapse. So now C3 is shopping the project to several other major studios, including DreamWorks, which just released "The Heartbreak Kid."

The question is whether the anemic opening of "Kid" will affect interest in the Stooges. The screenplay, which Bobby affectionately refers to as "Dumb, Dumber & Dumbest," is constructed of four loosely connected shorts. Although retaining the spirited chaos of the original shorts -- ingenious physical comedy setups/payoffs and witty wordplay that generate endless opportunities for smacks, bonks, doinks and nyuks -- Cerrone and the Farrellys have definitely modernized the edginess of the shenanigans.

One joke has Larry reminiscing about how Sister Bernice caught him in the orphanage bathroom "going No. 3." There are nods to Viagra, Robert De Niro and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." (Bobby says they will freshen the references if the project gets momentum; I have their version dated April 30, 2004.)

"Everybody has to appreciate that the guys, when they were doing their thing, pushed the envelope," says Earl M. Benjamin, president and chief executive of C3 and stepson of the last member to join the troupe, Curly Joe DeRita. "The kind of humor you're seeing in that script is the kind of thing that they would have done had they been here today."

The trick has been finding fans of the script in the executive suites who truly get the Stooges' slap shtick. (Benjamin says that he's been asked more than once: "Why is there so much slapping and hitting?") Even with the underwhelming receipts of the Farrellys' recent films, the Stooges have global brand recognition -- the shorts, films and cartoons broadcast in 30 countries. In an industry that now pulls in most of its box office revenue from outside the U.S., that seems like a slam-dunk.

"Somebody asks me probably once a week, 'How come this movie's never been made?' " Benjamin says with a sigh. "I should just press a recording or something. I don't know what to say anymore. It's Hollywood. We just go with the flow."

A sentiment that Moe would find appalling.

Oldie but goodie

Dispatch From the Never Too Late Department:

It's not often that a 90-year-old guy makes Rolling Stone's "Hot List," but this week nonagenarian debut author Millard Kaufman shares pages with cool kids Emile Hirsch, Olivia Wilde and "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody, all of whom collectively fall well short of the number of years that Kaufman has survived this whole perverse cosmic gamble.

Kaufman, who was nominated for two screenwriting Oscars in the 1950s ("Take the High Ground!" and "Bad Day at Black Rock"), decided in his late 80s that his screenwriting career just might have stalled. So he tried his hand at a novel instead.

This past week, McSweeney's published "Bowl of Cherries," Kaufman's satire about a prodigious 14-year-old boy abandoned by his father who, while in pursuit of a girl, journeys from Yale to a Colorado farm to a Brooklyn porn studio to, ultimately, a prison in southern Iraq built from human feces.

Along the way, Kaufman throws around 10-dollar vocabulary words such as "steatopygous" and "asseverate" that haven't turned up in a screenplay since Roget sent around his widely derided action spec, "The Bourne Scutellation."

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

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