Enough Trouble to Make Your Head Spin

by Laura M. Holsen - February 22, 2004

''SOMETIMES you don't know what you want,'' the movie producer James G. Robinson said recently on a telephone call from his estate on Stone Canyon Road in Bel Air. ''So you have to learn what you don't want."

It was mid-February and Mr. Robinson had just returned from a visit to Rome, where a crew was filming "Exorcist: The Beginning," the prequel to the 1973 horror classic"The Exorcist." Since its inception in 1997, the film itself has seemed to be cursed. The first director died. The star quit. The screenplay was reworked by no fewer than six writers. And the budget, which was financed solely by Mr. Robinson's Morgan Creek production company, nearly doubled.

But Mr. Robinson was referring more specifically to one of the most talked-about how-not-to-make-a movie moments in recent Hollywood history. Last summer, after Paul Schrader - the cinematic auteur who wrote art-house classics like"Raging Bull" and"Taxi Driver," had finished a version of the film, Morgan Creek scrapped plans to release it and decided to reshoot with the action-adventure director Renny Harlin, previously known for"Cliffhanger" and the bomb "Cutthroat Island."

Mr. Schrader did not go without a fight, and the gossip generated by the ensuing scuffle was so heated that it threatened to overwhelm the reputation of the film. By the time he and Morgan Creek officially parted ways last September, they agreed to sign a nondisparagement agreement lest either side find themselves threatening a civil lawsuit.

To be sure, it is not the first time a relationship between a director and producer ended in threats, lawsuits or worse. But this time, the conflict has resulted in an indefinite delay of the movie's Feb. 6 release, as Mr. Harlin is still in Rome, only now winding up 12 weeks of shooting."Finding a good director is like trying to find a good husband," Mr. Robinson said."It's not easy."

Mr. Schrader had another take."It comes down to a case of buyer's remorse," he said."Jim saw the film and decided he wanted another one."

In 1990 Mr. Robinson had produced"The Exorcist 3," which, despite getting poor reviews, proved that the"Exorcist" title could still turn a profit. So in 1997, he commissioned William Wisher, the screenwriter of"Terminator 2: Judgment Day," to write a script for"Exorcist: The Beginning." Mr. Wisher wrote the story of Father Merrin, who battled the devil in the original"Exorcist" some 25 years ago; in the new story, the young priest travels to post World War II Africa, where the devil confronts him and makes him question his faith. But Mr. Robinson said the script lacked the psychological terror of the original film. So he hired Caleb Carr, the New York author of the best-selling novel"The Alienist," for a rewrite. Mr. Carr's reputation attracted the attention of John Frankenheimer, the award-winning director of "The Manchurian Candidate" and, more recently "Ronin," who signed on to the film in August of 2001.

With Mr. Carr's new script in hand, and a July 2003 release date in mind, Mr. Frankenheimer set about hiring a cast. According to Mr. Robinson, several actors were interested in the part of Father Merrin, and it went to Liam Neeson, an actor who was seen as appealing to both women and men.

Mr. Frankenheimer's health was not good, however, and in June 2002, following spinal surgery, he left the project. Mr. Neeson followed suit. The next month Mr. Frankenheimer died of a stroke resulting from complications from his operation.

Few movies can recover from a tragedy of that magnitude, especially if they've already spent five years in development. But Morgan Creek was committed to it, and turned to Paul Schrader, a celebrated director and a close friend of Guy McElwaine, the company's president.

Mr. Schrader was an unusual choice. He favors psychological tension to the head spinning and projectile vomiting for which the original "Exorcist" was remembered. Furthermore, his most acclaimed films attracted an alternative crowd, not the more mainstream audiences of such Morgan Creek productions as"Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and"Major League." And he didn't seem to have much in common with Mr. Robinson, a Baltimore native (who still lives there part-time). He first made his fortune in distributing auto parts, and has a reputation for being mercurial and combative. But their differences did not deter Mr. Robinson."This movie needed someone who didn't do the standard horror-type movie," Mr. Robinson said.

For Mr. Schrader, it was a chance to direct a big-budget movie, his first since"Cat People," which bombed in 1982. His first step was hiring a new lead: Stellan Skarsgard, the Swedish actor who starred in"Breaking the Waves" and"Good Will Hunting." Other cast members included Gabriel Mann as a priest and Clara Bellar, a doctor named Rachel. In November 2002 the cast and crew flew to Morocco, where they filmed for six weeks, and then to Rome, where they spent two more months at the famous Cinecetta Studios. The movie had a budget of $38 million, Mr. Robinson said, and was still scheduled for a summer 2003 release.

That is, until Mr. Robinson and Mr. McElwaine of Morgan Creek watched the director's first cut with Mr. Schrader, on April 17 last year. Even before he showed it to them, Mr. Schrader knew the movie needed work."There was a scene where Father Merrin meets the devil and we shot it the wrong way," he said."We tried to fix it with the computer but the scene was over lit. It should have been darker."

But as the producers walked out of Screening Room 5 on the Warner Brothers lot, the lighting was the least of their concerns."The movie was plain not scary enough," Mr. Robinson said. It was too introspective; it needed more special effects."The cut that I looked at was not going to work." He said he told Mr. Schrader immediately and suggested that the movie was also too long. They agreed to talk later.

But the two did not speak again for several months. Instead, Mr. McElwaine became their interlocutor. The day after the screening, Mr. McElwaine called Mr. Schrader to his office on the Warner Brothers lot and told him he had one week to edit the film. The director balked."I said, `I want to do reshoots,'" Mr. Schrader recalled. Directors of his stature would usually be given that opportunity. But not this time."Guy said, `No.'"

So Mr. Schrader holed up in the editing room for seven days, and at the end of that week, he presented a new version. Once again, however, his producers were disappointed."Other than being shorter it wasn't really different from the first cut," Mr. McElwaine said.

At the end of the week Mr. Schrader was informed that Morgan Creek would be bringing in an editor to try to instill the missing tension in the film. The editor in question - the Oscar-nominated Sheldon Kahn, who edited"Out of Africa" and"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" - already knew the film well, having worked on it with Mr. Schrader for a month in Rome. But the director was livid.

In a heated exchange with Mr. McElwaine, he argued that the producers were looking for changes that could not be achieved merely through editing."What you are talking about is a script change," he said. As Mr. McElwaine recalled, he responded:"Jim wants to cut it without you. There's no reason for you to stick around."

According to his contract, Mr. Schrader had the right to stay."But that didn't seem like much fun," he said. So he flew back to New York to stew. A few months later he returned to Los Angeles, marched into the editing room and demanded that Mr. Kahn leave the premises.

"Shelly went home and called me and said, `I've been fired off the movie by Paul,'" Mr. McElwaine said."I called Paul and asked him to come to the office, and I told him he did not have the right to fire the editor. I told him to call Shelly right then and apologize and invite him back to the picture. Shelly was not there and Paul left a message. Shelly called me back and said, `I don't want to be on your movie.'"

Now with an angry director and no editor, Mr. Robinson and Mr. McElwaine had to decide what to do. So, Mr. Robinson said, they gave Mr. Schrader one more chance to edit the film, which ended as unsuccessfully as the first try."I felt he'd done the best he could do," Mr. Robinson said of Mr. Schrader."I told him we appreciated his work and we were finding a new director."

Despite all the acrimony, Mr. Schrader said he hadn't given up:"I would have liked to stay on the film. I thought I was out to do a classy piece of material." But by now most of Hollywood had heard - either from Mr. Schrader or Morgan Creek - about the unseemly exit of Mr. Kahn and the bickering over the final edit. Aware that further name calling would damage all of their reputations, particularly because it was starting to leak to the press, both sides said they agreed to call a truce.

It took more than a month to broker Mr. Schrader's exit, and last October Mr. Robinson began searching for a replacement. He met four times at his Bel Air estate with Mr. Harlin, who had three suggestions for making the movie more exciting: rewrite the script, recast the actors and add more action.

The folks at Morgan Creek were convinced. And so it was that they found themselves, seven years after the project had begun, setting out to make a whole new movie. From Mr. Schrader's version, they kept only the exterior shots in Morocco, according to Mr. Robinson. Three new writers were hired to rework scenes, too, he said, with Mr. Harlin even taking a stab at a rewrite. The outcome, Mr. Robinson said, is"more believable, less cerebral." They recreated all interior sets at Cinecetta Studios in Rome, even those from Morocco, at a princely sum. And though Mr. Skarsgard stayed on in the lead role, Mr. Harlin hired a score of new actors to surround him.

They began shooting the new movie for 12 weeks before Christmas at a cost of $300,000 to $450,000 a day or $2.1 million to $3.2 million a week, Mr. Robinson said. And that doesn't include post-production work. In all, the cost for the two movies will total more than $75 million.

Of course, there is one issue yet to be resolved: who will get the director's credit? As it stands now, Mr. Schrader has the directing credit, but all of the executives involved say that a compromise could soon be reached (subject to approval from the Directors Guild of America) to name Mr. Harlin as director.

What Mr. Schrader said he would like to do is show each film side by side in theaters."The question is, did they make the wrong film the first time or the second time?" he asked."I think the audience would like to judge."

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