'Crossing Over' and crossing out

Times Staff Writer

The May 14 letter to writer-director-producer Wayne Kramer began on an upbeat note: "Congratulations on commencing the production of your upcoming film, 'Crossing Over.' From the details I have gathered thus far, the story line is compelling."

But the president of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, soon got to the point: "I have serious concerns about the portrayal of Iranian-Americans in this film. The possible depiction of Iranian-Americans carrying out an honor killing in America is unfounded and potentially harmful."

What concerned the NIAC was that interwoven in the searing and often poignant story about the hot-button issue of immigration in Los Angeles was a key subplot involving Harrison Ford, who costars with Sean Penn and Ashley Judd. In an early draft of the script, Ford played a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who discovers that an Iranian American man has killed his sister to uphold his family's honor after learning she was having an affair with a Latino man.

Citing findings by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Parsi informed Kramer that there was no statistical evidence of "honor killings" having occurred either in Iran or among Iranian Americans living in the U.S. If left uncorrected, Parsi's letter continued, "the film will generate serious backlash against the Iranian-American community, further punishing a population that has been increasingly the target of discrimination and derogatory portrayals in this time of escalated tension between the U.S. and Iran."

Since the film was about immigration -- not honor killings -- the filmmakers did not want the issue to become a distraction.

"This is a very serious piece, and we wanted it to be accurate," recalled Frank Marshall, who is producing the film with Kramer for the Weinstein Co. "So Wayne rewrote a couple of scenes to take out any doubt [whether] . . . it was an honor killing."

Not enough

Kramer allowed the group to review his script revisions. Parsi said his staff felt the first updated script they reviewed didn't go far enough in addressing their concerns, and they sent Kramer a detailed analysis with their suggestions. Kramer sent a second revision, Parsi said, which did meet with their approval.

"We never threatened them or tried to force them to do anything," Parsi said.

The South African-born Kramer, whose previous films include "Running Scared" and "The Cooler," said in an e-mail to The Times that he made the changes "for purely dramatic reasons" and that "the original intent of the scenes involved remain unchanged." He added that before being contacted by the NIAC, he had already decided that the killer's motivation not be family sanctioned and, therefore, not an "honor killing." And, he noted, the murder is still very much in the film. "In fact, rather than being watered down, it has actually become more intense and controversial," he wrote in his e-mail.

Kramer said he did not permit the group to vet any final scenes. In fact, he said, script revisions were already in the works when he received their letter and one of his revisions concerned the Iranian American story line.

"The NIAC had obtained an unauthorized copy of the script -- an early draft that had since been revised quite extensively with regard to all the story lines," Kramer wrote. "When I provided them with an up-to-date version of the script, they had some minor issues related to a couple of lines of dialogue, and I was able to tweak the script without compromising the integrity of the story line." He said the group would see the film for the first time when it opens in theaters.

Kramer wrote: "The NIAC was NEVER shown the final script (even upon requesting it) and they held no auditing power over the final content. They will see the film for the first time when it opens in theaters sometime in November. I do not believe that filmmakers should provide scripts to special interest groups to be vetted -- unless the filmmaker is actively seeking out that particular group's point of view."

'Completely eliminated'

Parsi believes that had the group not contacted Kramer to express their concerns, "the script would not have changed to the extent to which it has now in which the concept of [family] honor has been completely eliminated from the movie."

The NIAC, which was formed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when anti-Muslim feelings were running high in America, describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonpolitical, nonsectarian and nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Iranian American participation in American civic life. It is not connected to the Iran- ian government. Indeed, Parsi said, many of its members fled Iran after the overthrow of the shah of Iran.

Dealing with pressure groups is nothing new in Hollywood -- least of all for Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who head the Weinstein Co., which is releasing "Crossing Over." At their previous company, Miramax Films, they often courted controversy, like dealing with political foes of Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary "Fahrenheit 911."

In the case of "Crossing Over," however, the Weinsteins fully endorsed the steps Kramer & Co. took to remedy what could have been a distracting issue. A spokesman for the Weinstein Co. issued a written statement expressing satisfaction in how the issue was resolved.

It read, in part, "We fully support the filmmakers' creative vision and their decision to make a few minor changes to ensure the accuracy of this important film." Tom Pollock, who once ran Universal Pictures and is now a producer, said that although filmmakers "can't just 'blandify' every movie" by bowing to the demands of each ethnic group that does not approve of its community being portrayed in a negative light, it sounded as though the producers of "Crossing Over" did the right thing by showing their script to the NIAC.

"It's not inherently wrong if the intention of showing people the script is getting the story right," Pollock said.



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