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
Thursday 19 August 1993
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.'
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