'Nim's' novel had bones, but story needed fleshing out
Empty"Nim's" novel: Adapting novels to the screen can drive writers crazy because they've got to slash lengthy plots and subplots to make them fit into a two hour movie, but that wasn't the case with "Nim's Island."
In fact, producer-writer Paula Mazur had quite the opposite problem in adapting Wendy Orr's 2002 novel because she had to expand the very short book in order to have enough story to make a movie. That challenge having been met successfully, the resulting adventure comedy from Walden Media opens wide April 4 via 20th Century Fox.
Directed by the husband-wife team of Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett ("Little Manhattan"), "Nim's" is produced by Paula Mazur and executive produced by Stephen Jones. Among Mazur's many producing credits are the 1991 comedy "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," starring Lily Tomlin, and the 1994 romantic comedy drama "Corrina, Corrina," starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta. Mazur also was an executive producer of the 2002 comedy drama "The Vagina Monologues," written and directed by and starring Eve Ensler, which premiered on HBO. "Nim's" screenplay is by Levin & Flackett and by Joseph Kwong & Mazur. Starring are Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler.
Mazur discovered Orr's book by accident while browsing in her neighborhood library. "I was looking for something to read to my children," she told me when we spoke recently. "It wasn't even the main library. It was the branch library in the Santa Monica library system and there was this beautiful new book. It hadn't been read. I was the first person to take it out -- a hardcover (book with a cover showing) a beautiful palm tree and this girl with a telescope sitting on it. I took it out and started reading it to my son, who was in second grade. It's a big print third grade chapter book. My daughter, who's three years older, wandered in. She was a fifth grader. And my husband wandered in. And every night over the course of a week we read the book.
"About six chapters in, I just really could see the film and became very possessed with the idea of making it into a movie. So I reached out to the author via the Internet and found her in Australia. I said, 'Hey, I'm writing from Hollywood and I'm wondering if the rights are available.' I got back this fantastic incredibly excited reply. The rights were available and I optioned the book and took it out (to studios to consider making). I come out of a more indie background so it was actually really fun for me to take this out and be able to hit all the studios."
This was almost five years ago. "It was one of those enviable projects where a lot of people wanted it," Mazur explained. "I was very interested in Walden Media because of their educational and library-school connection and their philosophy (of making family films). So I really wanted to do it there. And I also wanted to adapt it. I'd worked a lot with writers and had written myself, but had never made anything that I'd written and was really interested in adapting it. I had some interesting ideas on how to take this tale and make it work in a motion picture realm. Everybody seemed OK with that. I was able to make a deal with Walden, which was my first choice. Other people, including Fox, really wanted it. And then when Fox and Walden made a five-picture deal and they found out that Walden had 'Nim's' they came on board, as well."
Adapting the book became the first order of business for Mazur: "Joe Kwong, a fellow writer, and I did the first several drafts of it. It's a story of destiny and mistaken identity. The thing that we had the most fun with was playing with the mistaken identity pieces of it and how the characters kind of imagine each other to be who they're not. That was really how we first took it a step beyond what the actual novel was."
Orr's book, she pointed out, is "probably a little over a hundred pages, but it's a big print, third grade chapter book fare. So the story was actually very slim. The bones of the story were there and beautifully wrought. It's a gorgeous gem of a story about these three people who are destined to be together, but it definitely needed to be filled out. I'm adapting a book called 'Tangerine' now (the 1997 novel by Edward Bloor that Mazur's adapting and Danny DeVito is to direct) and it's 300 pages and a script is kind of the equivalent of 50 (book pages) so I'm just (dealing with the reverse situation). How do you get it down? It's a really well-known,
Asked how she and Kwong worked together while writing, Mazur told me, "Actually, Joe Kwong lives in '415 land' (San Francisco) so he came down (to L.A.) and we did a very elaborate outline, which Walden then approved. And then we wrote via e-mail, as one can only do these days. Ten years ago this wouldn't have been possible. I was the first writer and I would write 10 pages and send it off (and then another) 10 pages and send it off. He was behind me doing the second pass that I didn't read until I was done. And then we'd polish it up and get it in shape to deliver a first draft together.
"We hadn't (written together before). He was in my car one day and I said, 'Oh, I just got this fabulous book' and he said, 'Let me read it.' He read it and we started talking about it and completely saw the potential of it the same way. And that's how we embarked together."
How long did it take for them to finish their first draft? "I think it was 12 weeks," she replied. "You have those predetermined deadlines (in writing contracts). It was 12 or 16 weeks. Once we finished the draft of the outline and it was approved we had a very specific amount of time to do it. It's terrifying because I feel like the first draft you're just getting a handle on who the characters are, what parts of the story are working well and what needs to be shored up in the next draft. So the first draft just feels like a very initial step to me."
After Walden read their first draft, she continued, "they gave excellent notes, frankly, which is a complete pleasure when that happens. We went to a couple more drafts after that. We took the draft pretty far structurally into what it was going to be."
The film's directing team wasn't on board yet at that point. "And then as a producer working with Walden, (I) started to think about what is the next step to take this project further," Mazur said. "The idea for me of writer-directors to come in and take the draft home and direct it was really attractive. And that's when Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett came out with the movie called 'Little Manhattan' (the 2005 family comedy drama starring Cynthia Nixon), which I saw and Alex Schwartz who was at Walden had seen it and both of us went like, 'Let's see if they're interested.' They were. They got it. They've been fantastic collaborators on this. It was tricky because I'd been a writer and they were coming in as writers. The great thing about it was really seeing a very similar movie and being able to dive off the same diving board."
By the fall of '06 they had a draft that was ready to cast. "I think you have to start with a really good script," she observed, "otherwise you're not going to attract the cast that you want. But I feel that casting is absolutely critical to making the movie you want to make and having the characters that you've written inhabited by actors who can really bring them to life. What happened was Jodie's agent, Joe Funicello at ICM, slipped her the script and she really responded to it. It was a chance for her to do a family film (and) a chance for her to do comedy and she actually pursued us, which was just heaven.
"We really felt that if Jodie would come on board as the Alexandra character (the reclusive writer of the Alex Rover adventure books that young Nim, played by Abigail Breslin, calls on for help when her beautiful island is threatened) we would have a really classy film and a film that could become a classic as she's just such a brilliant actress. There wasn't a lot of recent comedy (that Foster had done) to point to, but when we spoke with her she just seemed to so get the material. We felt that if she felt she could nail the comedy, which she did, her chops as an actress were so phenomenal that she would make the character extremely believable and real as well as someone who's doing kind of pratfalling slapsticky comedy at moments, which she did."
After Foster signed on they focused on casting the role of Nim: "Nim is the most important character to me. It was such a great opportunity to take a female character like this into the world. She is just a game, can-do, very empowered girl who feels almost nongender. I felt it was great for everybody to see this type of character on the screen. This type of character is not available very much and it was very exciting to think that we could put Nim on the screen. The joint feeling was that we would do a worldwide search (and do) whatever it took. We would (look around the world) for the right Nim.
"We had a lot of flexibility (because) her mother died when she was 2 and you don't really see her mom. She could be multicultural. We felt very free in casting it however we wanted to. And then we saw 'Little Miss Sunshine' and we went from, 'OK, we'll circle the globe for the right girl' to 'Let's hire Abigail Breslin.' Abigail read the script and she just really loved the character and she really wanted to be in a film with sea lions. So the combination was really potent."
Gerard Butler was cast in the film's third key role as both Nim's real father and her fictional idol Alex Rover. "We had initially toyed with the idea even in the first draft that I wrote that Nim's father Jack and the action adventure hero in the movie, Alex Rover, were very similar or possibly the same character. And various people along the way brought (the idea) up. Jodie brought it up. But we never landed on an actor we felt could do both. And '300' came out right around this time (and became a blockbuster). So it was very clear that if we could get Gerard Butler he could definitely do the action adventure character. And then I took out a (2004 drama) called 'Dear Frankie' that he had been in and it was this heart-rending story. (It's) a small Scottish independent film about this guy who becomes a dad just for a weekend and he's just not the type to do that. And he was brilliant in it. That was it for me. It just became my crusade to get Gerard Butler to play both characters.
"He was very interested in doing that, this kind of tour-de-force of the two characters. It was one of those deals that everybody walks away from the table and you can't get it made. Jodie's and Abigail's (deals) were much easier. But Gerry was like everybody was there, everybody was gone, everybody came back to the table, everybody left the table. And then I finally got a call from Alan Siegel, his manager, one day when everybody but I had given up. I was in a meeting with the costume designer and the directors and the phone rang and it was Alan and he goes, 'Are you available for lunch today?' I hung up the phone and I said, 'There's hope yet.' We went and met in a restaurant and we wrote on napkins what we could do to inform this deal. Since we wanted it to happen and Gerry wanted it to happen we had to somehow push the deal through. And that was the beginning of the beginning of the new beginning. Based on that we were able to push through yet again and make a deal with Gerry. He's just fantastic in both roles."
Shooting began July 31, 2007: "We really had a ticking clock because once we made a deal with Jodie it was a pay or play deal and it was her summer film. It wasn't like we could push it off for a couple of months. This was really locked in. So we had to get ourselves on a plane somewhere and start making the movie. It was a substantial prep on the film because it was animals and children and water."
Those, of course, are the three things that veteran filmmakers always warn against including in any movie. "We had them all," Mazur sighed. "So we landed in Australia, where I always hoped to make the movie because they have a great film infrastructure and they had all these gorgeous locations for the world's most beautiful island, which is ostensibly what Nim lives on. We did a lot of preproduction here. The directors and I were actually in preproduction in our own minds from September of '06. We in our minds started pre-preproduction and we just acted as though we were making the movie. Every day we'd wake up and make the movie a little bit more in some way. By February of '07 we were really in as high gear as you can be without being green lit. We ended up getting green lit in April. We were on a plane mid-May.
"We actually scouted via the Internet and we hit the ground and basically went on a scout because we had to approve the locations (that had been found online). It was kind of a gamble because we did select Australia based on other people's scouting, but us not actually seeing it with our own eyes and only seeing it via Internet because of all the stuff that we were doing here (like) casting, production design, costume design that kept us stateside. So we got on a plane and got off the plane and got on another plane to go to Far North Queensland where we scouted by helicopter and plane near the Great Barrier Reef and just the most beautiful places on the planet, which was beyond fantastic."
Looking back at the biggest challenges of production, Mazur noted, "Once we got our cast set, I think the most challenging part of making the movie was the animals because Australia, where we chose to shoot, has a very a strong environmental program in place. You can't bring in any of the animals to Australia. So even though I found sea lions in London, who were going to be airlifted somewhere, when it became clear that we were shooting in Australia we couldn't bring those sea lions (in) because they would have spent the entire shoot in quarantine. So we had to find sea lions in Australia. We actually had done everything to make Australia work. We worked out our deals and where we were going to shoot and all these different things, but we didn't have a guarantee from Sea World yet that we could have their sea lions. The shoot ended up relying on two sea lions from Sea World being released to us. We went to the highest levels of the corporations.
"We went to the premier of the province (and begged), 'Help us bring this movie in and please get us these sea lions from Sea World.' Sea World is located about an hour south of Brisbane and we were shooting in a studio that was about 20 minutes from there. They had very well-trained sea lions there and we had an excellent animal coordinator, Katie Brock, in Australia putting this all together. She had worked at Sea World and ultimately they decided that they wanted to re-do their sea lion enclosure so they gave us the sea lions and we said, 'OK, we get to go to Australia.' Then they changed their mind and decided to shift their schedule and we were like, 'No, no. You can't do that. We have a gazillion dollar film coming in.' We did that pressure thing. I talked to everybody in Australia and said, 'Please get them to give us the sea lions' -- which they did."
But even that wasn't the end of the problem. "Everything that we had planned -- like we would have these sea lions and we would take them to this island in Far North Queensland where we were shooting and we would romp on the beach with them and Jodie and Abigail and Gerard -- all fell part because it turned out that you can't take sea lions by the water because they'll jump in and they'll swim away and you won't have your sea lions any more," she continued. "So we had to create this rainforest and island beach environment on a soundstage. That was a real shift. I think that was the most challenging thing -- two months before shooting really shift the game plan.
"We built an enclosure for them at the studio with a beautiful swimming pool and a little house for them. It was better than they'd have in the wealthiest zoo in the world. It was fabulous. We could take them on to the soundstages but we couldn't take them off the studio lot. So we had to create the most beautiful island in the world on the soundstage and create some beach on the clear section of the studio, which Barry Robison, our very talented production designer ('Wedding Crashers') did so brilliantly. I think we hauled in 400 or 500 trees onto this stage with like seven tons of dirt."
Shooting took place over the course of 11 weeks and, she said, the schedule was "very tight. Toward the end when we had to jam it all in, we had three units going simultaneously."
All told, Mazur said, reflecting on making the movie, "Walden was a terrific partner and I feel that we made the movie I originally saw when I read the book. And that, I think, is the most rewarding part." To which she added with a laugh, "And now I lay in bed at night and hope that everybody comes to see it!"
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 12, 1990's column: "You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief in Hollywood when Korea's Samsung Group announced that despite recently published reports it's not buying Orion Pictures.
"Those who do most of their reading between the lines took special note of the Samsung spokesman's parting jab that, 'Besides, we've been told Orion is an empty can.' Unkind as that was, insiders claim the line suggests someone had certainly been briefing the Koreans about Orion.
"On the other hand, Samsung may not have had the best input regarding Orion's potential given an influx of cash and new ownership. While Orion's track record at the boxoffice in recent years has admittedly been spotty, the studio has made some major advances lately in its marketing and distribution that are now starting to pay off.
"A case in point is 'Dances With Wolves,' which after a mid-November platform release for two weeks in eight major markets has now played three very successful weeks of wide release and gives every indication of being one of 1990's success stories...
"Coming so closely on the heels of Matsushita's takeover of MCA, the news that Samsung, a giant Korean electronics conglomerate, was looking into Orion raised anew the issue of Hollywood passing into foreign hands. While that's clearly the case on the most obvious level with four major studios already flying foreign flags, it isn't necessarily the area of greatest concern for Hollywood.
"Rather than focus solely on the nationality of those buying studios, we should also note what they do. By and large, these new Far Eastern buyers are hardware manufacturers. They make a point of talking about the synergy between their hardware businesses and Hollywood's software..."
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.