'Everything that I've done is to do with darkness'

Steve Kloves disappeared after making 'The Fabulous Baker Boys'. But his years in the wilderness helped him to adapt 'Wonder Boys' - and 'Harry Potter'.
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Every now and then, from the ocean of compromise, commercialism and hack the work that is the American movie business, a new young film-maker seems to spring forth fully formed. The last decade saw the arrival of such boy wonders as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Back in 1973, there was Terrence Malick with Badlands. And in 1989, briefly, there was Steve Kloves, who while still in his 20s, made a sensational debut as writer-director with The Fabulous Baker Boys.

Every now and then, from the ocean of compromise, commercialism and hack the work that is the American movie business, a new young film-maker seems to spring forth fully formed. The last decade saw the arrival of such boy wonders as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Back in 1973, there was Terrence Malick with Badlands. And in 1989, briefly, there was Steve Kloves, who while still in his 20s, made a sensational debut as writer-director with The Fabulous Baker Boys.

The tale of two piano-playing brothers on the cocktail-bar circuit, it managed to combine a surprisingly dark picture of sibling tensions with a moody, jazzy sensibility all Kloves's own. Plus, of course, the unforgettable sight of Michelle Pfeiffer writhing on top of a grand piano singing "Making Whoopee". The film earned four Oscar nominations, and Kloves followed it up in 1993 with the under-rated but equally original Flesh and Bone, a brooding modern-day Greek tragedy about a Texan vending-machine serviceman (Dennis Quaid) haunted by his father's violent legacy. However, this second effort proved too forbidding for American audiences. But there were enough good things in it to show that Kloves was coming on nicely. We awaited his next movie with interest.

And kept on waiting. For seven years, there was nothing; Kloves seemed to have dropped off the map. So what went wrong?

"I sort of retired," Kloves chuckles down the phone from California. "I used to say that sort of as a joke, but it was true. I just stopped for four years. Around the time I made Flesh and Bone the movie business was particularly poisonous." Two life-changing events while he was working on Flesh and Bone helped to crystallise this sense of disillusion. The first was the death of his producer and best friend Mark Rosenberg in November 1992 (the film is dedicated to his memory). The second was the birth of Kloves's first child. Suddenly the power struggles of Hollywood seemed irrelevant. "It was much more entertaining to watch my daughter grow up," he quips, "than it was to wait for a 50-year-old movie executive to grow up."

So it's somewhat ironic that what lured Kloves back into the film business after his self-imposed lay-off - apart from "a lot of bills" - was a story about a writer in mid-life crisis. Michael Chabon's 1995 novel Wonder Boys charts a chaotic weekend in the life of Grady Tate, a washed-up novelist and college professor who has not published anything for seven years, and whose life is coming apart at the seams. "I kind of understood where he was at," Kloves says.

Easing himself back into the business, Kloves turned down the chance to direct the project as well, but Wonder Boys ended up in the safe hands of LA Confidential's Curtis Hanson. The result is that rare thing, a Hollywood movie for grown-ups: funny, sophisticated, slightly off-the-wall, packed with evocative detail and three-dimensional characters (the quality supporting cast includes Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr and Frances McDormand).

A Kloves script may not be a guarantee of box-office success, but what it does invariably offer is a chance for one of Hollywood's A-list stars to try their hand at something completely different. In Flesh and Bone, for instance, an unusually downbeat Meg Ryan made a memorable entrance bursting out of a cake and promptly throwing up. In Wonder Boys it's the turn of a newly shaggy and fallible Michael Douglas, half-stoned, limping from an infected dog bite in his ankle, and tapping away feverishly at his typewriter in a woman's pink chenille dressing gown.

Kloves hopes to direct again one day, but in the meantime has put his plans on hold in favour of an even juicier scriptwriting assignment: Harry Potter. When he first signed up for the project, full-on Potter mania hadn't yet taken hold in the States. But since the frenzy surrounding the publication of Goblet of Fire, he's found himself with one of the most-talked-about jobs in town.

It might seem quite a leap from the offbeat, psychologically acute subject-matter of his previous work to JK Rowling's world of 11-year-old wizards, dragons and flying broomsticks. But Kloves can see a connection: "Everything I've done - and I haven't done much -- it's all had to do with darkness within the family. Even in Baker Boys - living too long with your brother, even if you love him - there's a sickness in it. Harry Potter is an abused kid with no family, who goes to Hogwarts and in a sense finds a family."

It will be interesting to see how Kloves's take on the material gels with that of the film's director - you can't get much more mainstream than Chris Columbus, the man responsible for such hits as Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire. But the person Kloves was most anxious to please was Rowling herself. "That was the most nervous meeting I've ever had," he says, "because ... I wanted to convey to her, 'Look, I really don't want to do some weird Americanisation of it.' And we just hit it off right from the beginning. ''

The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, presents something of a challenge to the adaptor, concerned as it is with introducing the world and characters rather than satisfying the more narrative-driven demands of cinema. Kloves has had some hard work fleshing out the plot without treading on Rowling's toes: "I invented one thing that I had to lose. She said, 'I really like this, but you can't do it because it's going to screw up something in book seven.'"

The film started shooting in September, and Kloves has already been hired to write the sequel. He was so young when his career took off that even now, as his "comeback" begins, he's still only 40. And with six more books in the Potter pipeline, surely his current gig has a good chance of providing him with regular employment for the next decade? "No one's taking anything for granted," he chuckles. "You don't want to get cocky about this stuff."

'Wonder Boys' (15) is out on Friday; the film adaptation of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' will be released towards the end of next year

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