FILM / 'I thought nothing could possibly go wrong. Huh]': Ian McEwan was happy with his first Hollywood film. It was small, but classy. Then along came Macaulay Culkin's dad . . . Sabine Durrant reports

Macaulay Culkin, the million-dollar-bairn with the sticky-out ears, has a new film this autumn. It's called The Good Son and it's making everyone 'very excited'. The studio is backing a 'teaser' campaign, the Culkin clan is celebrating Mack's agility in a serious role and the audience at the try-outs started talking to the screen - which is a good sign, apparently. But the scriptwriter, the British novelist Ian McEwan, is not excited. He hasn't seen the film - from which he considers himself 'sacked' - and he will not be going to LA to celebrate the opening. 'When I read that I've sold out and am writing movies for Macaulay Culkin,' he says stiffly, 'that I'm 'prostrating' my talent, I bridle. For one thing, I wrote the script when Macaulay Culkin was five years old.'

That a story by Ian McEwan, the chilly alchemist of base lives, the master of spare prose, has found its way into a big budget, popcorn-crunching Hollywood blockbuster starring the kid from Home Alone is wonderfully ludicrous. And the making of The Good Son - three directors, two casts, a relay of producers, more re-writes and revisions than you'd see at a sixth-form crammer - is almost a perfect parody of the British writer in Tinseltown. You may think you're top of the tree, but one step inside Hollywood and you find you're perched on a Bonsai in a plantation of Sequoias. It happens again and again. William Boyd had his fingers caught in the typewriter for Stars and Bars. Martin Amis thinks of his writer's credit on Saturn 3 as a 'debit': 'You get paid a whack but you earn it over and over in work and humiliation,' he says. And McEwan, relaying his experiences to the New York Times, said: 'It's an opportunity to fly first class, be treated like a celebrity, sit around the pool and be betrayed.'

McEwan's problems started in 1986 when, shortly after finishing A Child in Time, he was asked by Twentieth Century Fox if he would like to write a movie about evil - 'possibly concerning children'. He agreed: 'But only on the basis that it would be psychological and not brimstone and sulphur. The idea was to make a low budget, high class movie, not something that Fox would naturally make a lot of money on.'

He came up with a tight, disturbing script about a 12-year-old boy who, after the death of his mother, goes to stay with his uncle and aunt and slowly discovers his cousin is psychotic. He wrote it easily - 'when you've just finished a novel, you feel you can do anything' - and it went down well: but not well enough. 'The people who commissioned it loved it, but then the people higher up said 'where's the ectoplasm?' They wanted another Omen. So the script floated around for a long time - it became one of those famous scripts that everyone had read and no-one had made.'

That, though, was before the independent producer Mary Anne Page got hold of it. Page 'adores' McEwan: 'He does things so beautifully in just a brush stroke,' she says from LA. 'Visually, he gets it. You can just see the shots.' The moment she read The Good Son, she was hooked: 'I was given it as a writing sample. I said 'writing sample'? We ought to make this movie.'

For the next three-and-a-half years, Page tried to get it off the ground. It fluttered briefly at Universal with the director Brian Gilbert, but crash-landed at an early stage (no casualties). 'Then,' says Page, 'came Home Alone - which proved to studios that films about kids could attract adults - and, more importantly, Silence of the Lambs, which meant they were all saying 'OK, so we can do an extreme thriller.' The upshot was Fox promptly changed their minds.' A new director, Michael Lehmann (of Heathers and Hudson Hawk), was found, Laurence Mark was appointed as co-producer, and McEwan was hauled in to do rewrites.

'At this point,' says McEwan, 'I couldn't understand why writers ever complained about Hollywood - the people I met were as intelligent as anybody in the publishing world, very dedicated. I thought the director was very bright, with good taste. The main work was done on the mother - Mary Steenburgen had been cast and they wanted to beef up her role - and that was fine. By November '91, everything was going ahead: we were building sets in Maine; we'd cast two unknown actors as the leads; we had 70 people on the payroll. We'd got to the point where money was committed - about dollars 4m. I was about to go over for rehearsals. There's nothing, I thought, that could possibly go wrong now.' He laughs sardonically. 'Huh]'

Because then came the thunderbolt - in the form of Mack the knife. Or rather Mack's father. Kit Culkin, a failed actor, had by now given up his job as a Roman Catholic church sacristan (he was a taxi-driver before that) to manage his son's career. The 48th most powerful man in Hollywood (according to Premiere magazine), his first move was to secure a hefty wedge (allegedly dollars 5m) for the sequel to Home Alone (which earned Macaulay pounds 250,000 and grossed the studio dollars 507m). His second was to start making conditions. These included merchandising deals, fancy trailers, on-set Sega games, oh, and other people's movies. Macaulay was to have the part of the evil cousin in The Good Son - or else.

Cue: uproar. Casting Macaulay would mean a year's delay - Home Alone II and The Good Son were both winter shoots - and it would mean losing Steenburgen, but Fox was happy to say yes. Joe Roth, who was then chairman, told the press: 'There are no 11-year-olds like Macaulay; to get the kid in a lead part, that's a great asset. Look, if Joe Blow were cast in a movie and Mel Gibson is suddenly available in nine months, you wait nine months.' Lehmann, however, was livid that the Culkins had been sent the script without his knowledge and, after testing the child, was convinced he was wrong. 'He wanted someone physically a bit larger and more powerful, maybe a little more complex,' says McEwan diplomatically. Other sources at the time said: 'Mack can't act. He just mimics. He does single clauses. And that isn't what this movie needs.'

It was what the movie got. Lehmann and Mark tried to cajole the Culkins off their patch (even John Hughes intervened, dangling other 'Oscar-calibre' roles before the Culkins). When they failed, they both left (Mark, McEwan says, 'because Kit Culkin hadn't liked the role he'd played in the negotiations'). Kit Culkin, who had by now insisted that his daughter Quinn be cast in the movie too, vetted a new director - Joe Ruben, who had mainstreamed evil in Sleeping with the Enemy. The film - with a budget now soaring from dollars 12m to more than dollars 20m - was back to square one.

In England, McEwan was anxious, but not despairing. 'Macaulay Culkin may not have been what I had in mind,' he says now, 'but at the same time I saw that he did have qualities that we could exploit. For one thing, if you're working in the Hollywood system, it makes a huge difference if you've got a bankable star. You want that helicopter shot? You've got it. It also meant we could cast Elijah Wood, who had been unavailable initially, as the other boy. On the other hand, every time there's a new director, there's a new draft . . .'

At first, he and Ruben got on fine. They met in New York and Oxford to discuss changes to the script. 'He is very much a commercial director,' says McEwan. 'His ideas did simplify things a little. Work was done now on the Macaulay role and I felt some of the strangeness was under threat. There was a whole subplot about a local fight to save the beach - which centres on the mother and which I'd extended with Michael Lehmann - which I was very sad to lose. But we came up with a much better ending. The studio said they were extremely happy.'

But that was the first half of 1992. That was before things turned really nasty. In August, McEwan began to notice his phone calls were not being returned. His faxes were being ignored. Ruben was always out. It was only when a producer friend mentioned that Ruben had employed another scriptwriter - 'a chum of his' - that McEwan discovered he'd been eased out altogether.

'I was extremely angry,' he says. 'This was year five of trying to get this thing off the ground - we'd had all these near-misses and just as it went into pre-production I found myself basically sacked from my own script. Naturally, when somebody who has been a guest in your house and who you've worked closely with then edges you off and doesn't have the courage to phone you - they tend to shrink in your estimation. By any standard of behaviour - even Hollywood standards - that's pretty poor.'

That was the last direct contact McEwan had with the film. The other writer, who he's heard has made a lot of changes to both dialogue and structure, made a bid for joint credit, but McEwan contested it and won. He has also been approached to write the novelisation of the movie, a prospect that filled him with horror and despair. 'I've already written it,' he says. 'the thought of sitting down and plonking away at the typewriter and doing it again . . .' Anyway, he has other film projects on the go - The Cement Garden, adapted by Andrew Birkin, and The Innocent, adapted by himself, both open this autumn. And he's working on another original script for Universal - this time, a neurological thriller.

'If that one looks like being destroyed,' he says, 'I hope I can keep enough control to withdraw it. But I'm sure I've just had a typical bruising. Film throws up an enormous amount of dust and heat and noise, urgent meetings and so on, which have nothing to do with making a film, but to do with people who are not creatively involved guarding their investments. I suppose,' he adds, with just a trace of bitterness, 'it's what you should expect when people are spending the GNP of small countries to make other people less bored for 100 minutes.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit