Q&A: 'O'Keeffe' writer Michael Cristofer

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Retelling someone's life can take time. For Michael Cristofer, that time is about 17 years. The writer of Lifetime's original movie "Georgia O'Keeffe" talks about his years-in-the-making project about the iconic American painter, the perils of the biopic format and the enduring relevance of O'Keeffe's struggle to be taken seriously.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why are made-for-TV movies and miniseries now almost exclusively about real events and people?

Michael Cristofer: The networks wants you to write about something that is already sold. A known name or known historical event. Something that they don't have to sell from scratch.
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THR: You'd been working on an O'Keeffe biopic for years before Lifetime signed on. When did you start?

Cristofer: I was first approached to write about O'Keeffe by Michelle Pfeiffer in 1996. She wanted to do a feature film about her. I knew O'Keeffe's paintings, but I didn't know anything about her life. I started to do research and the more you read, the deeper it gets. It really was an extraordinary, very long life. Indeed, she died at 98.

THR: Because of that did you decide early on to focus on just a segment of her life?

Cristofer: That was the hardest decision. After I wrote and directed "Gia," I realized the biopic cradle- to-grave format was pretty much dead. Also, the other great character was (O'Keeffe's art promoter husband) Alfred Stieglitz, played by Jeremy Irons. There is a wealth of stuff in their letters, so I made their relationship the center of the film.

THR: Pfeiffer couldn't sell the idea for a feature, so you shelved it for more than a decade?

Cristofer: Yeah. I put everything aside and waited for something to happen. Fortunately Joan Allen decided she wanted to do an O'Keeffe story.We were both at ICM at the time. You meet Joan and you just think, "She is perfect for this." You believe she is a girl from a farm somewhere with an intelligence that is far greater than a girl from a farm would normally have.

THR: How did you immerse yourself in O'Keeffe's life? Does she have any living relatives?

Cristofer: No. She outlived everybody I think. Her house in New Mexico has been turned into a museum and there is a guardian of the estate and all that can be said and written about O'Keeffe. A wealth of information.

THR: How many different versions of the script did you write?

Cristofer: In my current computer there are 13 versions. In the original version, the scope of her life was greater. I realized when you have this kind of subject, you have to really, really, really commit to one core thing. For me, this was Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's relationship. Anything that wasn't about that didn't belong in the movie. You have to be tough on yourself.

THR: Does O'Keeffe's struggle to be relevant in a man's world mirror what women go through today in Hollywood?

Cristofer: I have been writing screenplays since 1980 and what I've seen women go through during that time is very much reflected in O'Keeffe's story. She needed to deal with this man, Stieglitz, to further her career. He said, "Goddamit! Women are voting, women are coming into their own. I'm going to take this painter and she is going to become the equal of any man that is working in this field." Because of him, O'Keeffe was the first female painter to be hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I do believe they loved each other, too.
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