Saturday, March 18, 2006


The Film That Never Was

Can Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar win for Capote -- and a renewed interest in the author -- breathe new life into the long dormant plans to film Capote's novella, Hand Carved Coffins? I decided to do a little detective work into the development of this project. Since 1980, two major, but separate, attempts have been made to bring Hand Carved Coffins to the screen. The first involved producer Lester Persky, director Hal Ashby, and actor Jack Nicholson. The second go at it involved producer Dino De Laurentiis and directors Michael Cimino and David Lynch. Capote first published Hand Carved Coffins as a serialized account in Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. In 1980, the story was included as part of Capote's collection Music for Chameleons. Like his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Hand Carved Coffins is described as "a nonfiction account of an American crime." Immediately following its publication, Persky (producer of such films as Shampoo and Hair ) -- and reportedly a friend of Capote, who was trying to keep the writer sober -- expressed interest in buying Hand Carved Coffins and bringing it to the screen. He wanted Capote to write the screenplay (hoping it would keep him away from alcohol and drugs). According to Patrick McGilligan, author of Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson (1994), in the early 1980s it was announced that director Hal Ashby (the director of Shampoo) and Nicholson (who had been directed by Ashby in The Last Detail) would reteam (presumably with Persky producing) and that Jack would play a fictional detective on the trail of a serial killer in the adaptation of Truman Capote's Hand Carved Coffins, to be directed by Ashby. Capote died in 1984 from an overdose. (At the time of his death, in 1988, Ashby was reportedly still attached, as director, to the project.) When the Lester/Ashby/Nicholson matrix collapsed, the film rights to Hand Carved Coffins then moved to producer Dino De Laurentiis and the project was offered to (and rejected by) directors Michael Cimino (for whom Laurentiis produced Year of the Dragon) and David Lynch (with whom Laurentiis teamed for Dune). In April 2001, entertainment columnist Liz Smith reported that producer Persky was still in the picture and collaborating with the nephew of Dino De Laurentiis, Aurelio DeLaurentiis, CEO of Filmauro Films, to bring to Hand Carved Coffins to the screen. Persky died in December of 2001. In August 2003, Variety reported that Hand Carved Coffins was still in the Filmauro Film "pipeline," and, in the article, Aurelio DeLaurentiis is attributed as saying he was seeking a writer to adapt the story to the present day, with women assuming the key male roles. As of 2006, Hand Carved Coffins has yet to be produced.

Is this an indication of what happens across the board in Hollywood?
Handcarved coffins is one of many pieces of fiction that is simply un-adaptable. Once you get past the conceit that it's a true story and you come at it from some point of view other than that of the writer Truman Capote being drawn into a bizarre set of threats amidst an ongoing land dispute, you have nothing left. It's precisely Capote's persona and his erstwhile noteriety for mixing the style of fiction with reportage, that makes the story so effective. To lose those elements is to lose the story. To think of changing the essential characters into women is ridiculous.
There are plenty of works of fiction that can undergo the vast changes required to translate them into a film while retaining something of the essence of the original. Handcarved Coffins isn't one of those stories. I'm sure Hal Ashby would have made a good film and David Lynch a pointless, pretentious one, but neither would have contained the essence of that story.
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heard it occured in green river wyo.
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