'Seeker' follows in fantasy footsteps

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Supernatural "Seeker": Hollywood's affection for fantasy novels revolving around young heroes battling the forces of evil continues with "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising."

With J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" novels, J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" books having already spawned blockbuster franchises for Warner Bros., New Line and Disney, there are high hopes now at 20th Century Fox and Walden Media for "Seeker," based on the second in Susan Cooper's best-selling series of five "The Dark is Rising" children's novels published in the 1960s and '70s.

"Seeker," by the way, is the first film to result from the Fox Walden Films partnership. Walden is best known for its blockbuster "Chronicles of Narnia" franchise, which is ongoing at Disney with its next episode, "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," arriving next May. On the heels of "Seeker," opening Oct. 5 via Fox, Fox Walden Films has its high-profile family fantasy comedy "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," starring Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman and Dustin Hoffman, opening Nov. 16 via Fox just in time for Thanksgiving.

"Seeker" is directed by David L. Cunningham (director of the Emmy nominated 2006 ABC miniseries "Paths to 9/11"), produced by Marc Platt (a producer of the "Legally Blonde" films, executive producer of "Paths to 9/11") and written by John Hodge (an Oscar nominee for "Trainspotting").

Starring are Ian McShane, Frances Conroy, Christopher Eccleston, Gregory Smith, Jonathan Jackson and Alexander Ludwig as Will Stanton, the film's 13-year-old central character who discovers he's actually someone called The Seeker with special powers to find where the power of the Light is hidden at a time when the Dark is rising and must be defeated.

For some insights into adapting Cooper's supernatural story to the screen, I was happy to be able to talk recently to Hodge, who called from the U.K. "I was actually approached by a different producer about 10 years ago who asked if I was interested in adapting 'Dark is Rising,'" he told me. "At that time I was set to do another (project) and it wasn't something I was really drawn to. I thought no more of it and then a couple of years ago (it came up again).

"I'd worked for Cary Granat (co-founder and CEO of Walden Media) and did some rewriting work on "Sahara" (for which Walden's sister company Bristol Bay Productions was a production company) and his company approached me with 'Dark is Rising.' I thought, 'Strange, this has come 'round again.' So I gave it more thought. I'm not an enormous fan of fantasy, so initially my thought was, again, it's an odd picture and not something I want to get involved in. But as I started thinking about it what I liked about it then was the story of the boy in the real family and the real world and I first started to think of his fantastical journey as being more an inner journey. As I became interested in it I started to identify more with the boy and thinking of his experiences being more universal. That turned me around and from that point on I was pretty keen to do it. That was my way in, if you like."

Had he read Susan Cooper's books? "Only 'Dark is Rising,' which I'd seen 10 years ago. That was the only one," he said. "The biggest challenge is that Susan Cooper's prose is quite lyrical and literally the physical scene kind of shifts in a sort of fluid almost frantic fashion rather than (the way that with) a lot of conventional more modern novels (we) tend to see authors writing with one eye on the film adaptation. So there are not so many set pieces as I think you see in a lot of contemporary novels. That was one challenge. The other challenge, I think, was that cinema demands a more active protagonist than the one she wrote. So I had to address that."

Asked to describe what the complex book is about, Hodge replied, "Tough question. It's about a boy who is reaching his 14th birthday, the second youngest in a large family, and he's away from his normal environment in that he's American and his father has temporarily relocated to rural England. He finds himself drawn into a supernatural struggle between good and evil, though not by chance but because, as it turns out, it is his destiny."

When he's adapting a book, he explained, "The most difficult thing is when you're just thinking about it and you're not actually writing (for a period of) weeks or a few months. You're really just trying to pinpoint in your mind what you feel the story could be like and just trying to get a handle on it. It's quite easy just to rush in and sort of adapt a few scenes and all that and stick it all together. But I think you do a better job if you spend a bit of time just thinking about it. In a way, you're not actually producing very much. Days might go by when you're not really getting much down on the page. But I think that's the important time because that's when you finally settle on the important ideas, the ones that are going to form the structure of the film. So there's a prolonged period when you don't (seem to be) doing very much and then the actual writing doesn't take very long.

"I wouldn't say I use the same method for every book I've adapted, but in this case I wrote some (index) cards and shuffled them around. I'm not absolutely certain that's (the best way of working but) I think of it as a form of occupational therapy when you're mixed up. But for certain sections of a film, it definitely works, particularly if you're thinking of inter-cutting things and you're wanting to almost storyboard them with words, as it were. But really I think it's just thinking about it (that's best). You find the durable ideas are the ones that last longest in your mind. They're the ones you don't chuck out after a couple of days. You just kind of immerse yourself in it."

It was about a year and a half ago that Hodge was writing the film's screenplay. "By this time last summer, Marc Platt was taking the script to Walden and then Walden took it on to Fox," he said. "After that first (creative period), then you're (doing) a certain pragmatic sort of technical approach, just kind of addressing the problems and trying to streamline the script."

How does he work when he's writing? "Usually by hand," he replied. "Scene by scene (writing) just roughly what's going to happen in the scene (and) here's a couple lines of dialogue. And just go back all through it, fleshing out each scene -- not necessarily finishing it -- so you get something that's maybe 30 pages and the next time you go through it it's 60 and then, you know, you actually finish it off and it's 100 or 120 or whatever it is. By passing through it each time you're not getting bogged down in one scene or one sequence. Even if you know it's temporary, that's fine as long as you mark it in your mind to come back and finish it off properly later."

Although Hodge does his early writing in longhand, he explained, that's just "to start with. Once I've (finished) structuring it scene by scene then I do it on the computer. I use Final Draft. Does anyone use anything else these days? I used to use Scriptware. I thought Scriptware was very nice. That was a while back (but) you couldn't send it to anyone (by e-mail)."

When he's writing he's keeping reasonable hours: "I have a family life so I (write during) the day and sleep at night. I think if I didn't have any other commitments I probably would write evenings and at nighttime and sleep in the morning. But that option is not available to me."

As for writing, he added, "It's not a terribly sociable occupation, really, writing of any sort (but) scriptwriting is more sociable than being a novelist. I go to an office and I'm the only one there so I suppose I'm shut away in that sense. Apart from that, I don't avoid social contact when I'm working on a script."

Writing a fantasy genre script was something new for Hodge: "There are some fantastical elements to 'A Life Less Ordinary' (his 1997 romantic crime comedy directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz and Holly Hunter), but not to the same extent as with this film. For me the challenge was liberating myself from the notion of constraints because most of the time you're writing scripts thinking you should have one eye on the production and practicalities of it, but when you're into fantasy to a certain extent you have to let that go. If something is too expensive in the end, the producers come back and say, 'We can't do that. That's too big scale. Just bring it back a little bit.' But on the other hand, no one's going to give you a reward for writing something (really unchallenging). In this kind of genre and this market you have to move beyond interiors and low budget exteriors, you know what I mean? You've just got to say, 'Right. Imagine anything can happen. What can happen?'

"For this film, I didn't (censor myself from writing anything too expensive to shoot) because, finally, I was ignorant. I'm not a digital cost analyst. I don't actually know how much (something costs to shoot). I know it's all very expensive, but I don't know if it's more expensive to have (one thing versus another). There were a few things (that needed changing in the script). There were one or two areas where there were things we couldn't do, but I would say not an awful lot, really."

While he was writing, Hodge said, "no one was attached. I often have faces of actors or voices in my head, but not necessarily people who are alive or available to cast. Obviously, the main protagonist here is the boy. I didn't have any 14 year old actor in mind."

Looking back at the writing process, were there any scenes that posed major challenges to getting them right? "I think one of the biggest challenges is that there is time travel in this and it's set in an old English village," he pointed out. "And one of the hallmarks -- one of the sort of supposedly most attractive features -- of these old English villages is that they haven't changed very much through time. So the scene where they travel through time in a church (was difficult because) the inside of an English village church looks pretty much the same as 500 years ago. That was frustrating. I was thinking, 'Well, actually, they shouldn't be in a church. They should be in something else that is completely different.' If you were starting from scratch making a film that involved time travel you wouldn't normally set it somewhere that wasn't changing much with time, would you? That's an aspect that was tricky.

"Another aspect (that was difficult) was the age of the protagonist and just having to be constantly aware of what can a 14 year old boy do. You have to think about the other films recently in this genre and this sort of age -- what does Harry Potter actually do? Obviously, it's changed between the various films. What do the children in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' (the first 'Narnia' episode) actually physically do? So I looked at those closely to see what was acceptable or beyond the pale. If you're writing for an adult, you're freer in that sense."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Nov. 10, 1989's column: "Like Europe, Hollywood is in the midst of significant and accelerated change. Just as the map of Europe is being redrawn in political and social terms, the movie map also is being recast.

"Where Europe has its 12-nation European Community, Hollywood has its eight-member community of major studios. Looking at the Hollywood map, the most obvious change now underway is at Columbia Pictures Entertainment. Its takeover by Sony is bringing about a change of government for Columbia and its sister studio Tri-Star. Columbia's newly installed chairmen, Peter Guber and Jon Peters, are Hollywood's equivalent of kings. Actually, since its earliest days, Hollywood has known that studios are best run with an iron hand.

"As with any new government, it remains to be seen to what extent Guber and Peters will reshuffle their cabinet. Of special interest is what power they grant to former Columbia queen Dawn Steel, who is said to be remaining for a year at Guber and Peters' request. If Columbia is one of Hollywood's sovereign states, Tri-Star is a duchy. A side issue of interest is whether or not Sony will spin off Tri-Star to a group of Hollywood and Wall Street princes said to include Ray Stark, Herbert Allen Jr. and Frank Price...

"Elsewhere on the Hollywood map, MGM/UA looms as a kind of Third World nation in the wake of the aborted attempt by Australia's Qintex to take it over. However good its present management team headed by Richard Berger may be, until the underlying crisis of who is going to own the company is resolved, it seems unlikely that serious dealmaking with the best of the Hollywood creative community can resume.

"Not all of the sites on the Hollywood map are troubled. Universal, for instance, is now enjoying the fruits of a change in leadership several years ago that brought attorney Thomas Pollock in as chairman of MCA's Motion Picture Group. Reversing the malaise that had gripped Universal, Pollock now has one of the industry's most successful studios...

"While Time Warner's Warner Bros. and Rupert Murdoch's 20th Century Fox are currently stable, the winds of change could blow elsewhere. Since losing its bid for Time, Paramount Communications has become an attractive takeover possibility. However, given its considerable strength, insiders believe Paramount will take steps to control its destiny. Disney, too, is seen as well managed and successful, making it an attractive takeover target. Orion is something of a wild card, a studio that could be taken over or that could be a predator, given the financial resources of its principal shareholder John Kluge."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com
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